Living through something: Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, and storytelling in Coming-of-Age films
For as long as there have been people, there have been storytellers. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur attributed it to the human desire for meaning, which naturally spills over to the human search for narrative. We desperately want to believe that our lives are building up to something, that all this makes Chekhovian sense, even as the world reminds us every day of its absurdity and randomness. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, because otherwise, we’d have no urge for going. We are all storytellers, because we cannot fathom existing otherwise.
Even so, the coming-of-age story feels more critical than most in our lifelong mythmaking project. The coming-of-age story holds a special place in the human heart because it’s by definition set at the most transitory time of most people lives, when they transition from childhood to something resembling maturity. There is no blueprint for the perfect coming-of-age story, because there is no blueprint for the perfect life, but every great coming-of-age story must approximate the rhythms of its chosen characters with clarity and compassion. Rilke once wrote that childhood was the greatest wellspring of stories one had at their disposal; in the great coming-of-age stories, the cup runneth over.
Great coming-of-age stories don’t come along every year, so we should be grateful that 2017 has given us two that have been embraced by audiences and critics alike: Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. While both are primarily about the becoming of their respective adolescent protagonists, the two films are vastly different in both structure and tone, and are in fact representative of two distinct but equally potent ways of telling coming-of-age stories: Nothing Happens and Something Happens cinema. Both films plunder recklessly from their respective traditions, and are thus inextricably entwined with their genre’s rich histories.
The opening scene of Lady Bird doubles as its statement of purpose: This film is about a girl going through her senior year of high school, with an overbearing mother and dreams of going to East Coast colleges. In one of the most effortlessly engaging bursts of exposition ever put to celluloid, Lady Bird and her mother are introduced through a winding car conversation that runs through some subtly great emotional shifts while still getting its audience up to speed with these remarkably regular people—a lower-middle class family suffering through the sort of ups and downs any sort of family would be more than familiar with.
All this makes Lady Bird sound everyday, and true enough, director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig never really reinvents the wheel with her film. On the contrary, the film’s brilliance stems directly from the way it seems to be in conversation with the ghosts of coming-of-age films past, breathing new life into familiar tropes by imbibing them with a renewed specificity.In particular, Lady Bird taps into the rich tradition of coming-of-age films I like to call Nothing Happens cinema, borrowing spare parts and old tropes to build its own classic.
Of course, Nothing Happens cinema isn’t meant to be taken literally. Events unfold onscreen like in any movie, but instead of following a defined and singular narrative through line, Nothing Happens films tend to splinter into individual vignettes, more thematically than narratively bound together. The Nothing Happens school of coming-of-age cinema reflects the very real ennui that comes with adolescence: The constant waiting for something to happen, coupled with the underlying anxiety of not being quite sure what that something is supposed to look like. Every writing class in the world will teach you—not wrongly, in most cases—that the inciting action of any story must be a point of no return for your protagonist, but both fictional and real-life coming-of-age stories are all about waiting for that inciting action, without realizing that our becoming is never as neat as a screenwriting-class script.
One of the very best iterations of this is Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, which also provides a very succinct summary of what human emotion drives films like these, as a character named Cynthia whines, “I’d like to quit thinking of the present…as some minor insignificant preamble to something else”. Every Nothing Happens narrative made before and after this film grapples with this statement in its own way, and Lady Bird is no exception. Our titular protagonist wouldn’t quite agree with Cynthia, as Lady Bird’s entire character arc is about impatience; she keeps waiting for life to happen to her, without realizing that it already is, just not in the way she thought it would. To paraphrase another Linklater film, the moment seized her, without her realizing there was a moment for her to seize.
The coming-of-age narrative that Lady Bird most resembles, however, isn’t a film, but a TV show. Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s short-lived but fondly remembered NBC dramedy Freaks and Geeks feels like a first draft of Lady Bird, or at least a spiritual big sister. Both center around headstrong young girls trying to navigate the complex social hierarchies of high school, and both have absolutely stacked benches beyond their two compelling protagonists. I’d like to think that if Lady Bird had been a television show, it would have found ways to flesh out characters like Danny and Julie the way Feig was able to turn characters like leather-jacket punk Daniel and mathlete Millie into three-dimensional characters all their own.
Most of all, both shows—and really, even the aforementioned Linklater films—have in common a sense of memory. They all feel like half-remembered fragments of a part of their lives whose importance will only become articulable with age and wisdom. It takes a certain level of maturity to be able to appreciate those long drives around the hometown you love but desperately want to escape, those afternoons killed by lying in bed and listening to old records, those lazy nights spent bar-hopping and waiting for something to happen, not yet comprehending that it’s all already happening. The very best of Nothing Happens cinema taps into that dull ache of nostalgia, of wanting to be seventeen and jittery and brimming with potential again, while still articulating that life was always meant to turn out as a low-budget version of our wildest dreams, and helping us make peace with that truth.
Of course, if we have Nothing Happens cinema, there has to be a Something Happens cinema, and Call Me By Your Name is the quintessential Something Happens coming-of-age film. There’s a clear narrative through line, and each scene ably advances the plot by either fleshing out or furthering its characters towards their intended objectives, through coherent and consistent actions. While this all sounds like Screenwriting 101, it’s surprising how many films fail to do this properly and consistently, while also taking enough creative risks to feel as fresh and emboldening as Call Me By Your Name.
This is the film’s skeleton, but the real brilliance of Guadagnino’s film—and any film, really—lies in its grace notes. Call Me By Your Name runs on both its sensuality and its essential ephemerality, and its romance only works so well because the audience is made immediately aware that there is a deadline. In the opening scene, the film situates itself in summer, a season whose romance has always stemmed from the inevitability of its end. We are informed immediately that Oliver’s visit will only be for six weeks, and are never reminded of it until the very moment it would hurt the most. Similarly, the film has a very certain yet indefinite notion of place, as it renders its spaces so pristinely, yet relegates it geographically to some undefined “somewhere” in the Italian countryside. The film effectively situates itself in a love bubble, with the full knowledge that all bubbles have to burst sometime.
More than a few parallels have been drawn between Call Me By Your Name and two other recently released coming-of-age films that also disguise themselves as gay romances: Todd Haynes’s sumptuously sensual Carol, and Barry Jenkins’s achingly melancholy Moonlight. Beyond these surface parallels, all three films feature solid narrative through lines, and Jenkins’s film is even literally divided into three acts. All three films unfold in similar ways, but our protagonists—Therese, Chiron, Elio—all end up in distinctly different places by the end of them. Where Nothing Happens films capture the prevailing ennui of adolescence, these films simply depict watershed moments we all experience, only in vastly different ways. Many times, this watershed moment happens to be our sexual awakening, which is why every example I’ve used so far happens to be a romance.
This structure doesn’t just lend itself effectively to romance films, of course. Cameron Crowe’s iconic Almost Famous features a romance, but its real central relationship is between protagonist William Miller and music, represented by both love interest Penny Lane and idol/romantic rival Russell Hammond. The film depicts a glorified road trip, demarcated neatly by pit stops and parties, as well as a killer soundtrack that couldn’t be more beholden to the era it depicts. Both Almost Famous and Call Me By Your Name center on precocious teenagers in the midst of a sexual awakening (though Elio handles his with considerably more cool than the dorky William), and both films use external sources—pop songs, classic literature—as a makeshift Greek chorus for their characters’ inner turmoil. Perhaps most crucially, both films find much of their dramatic tension through the difficulty of translation, of moving from language to language and interaction to interaction, desperately looking to make some sort of connection.
Something Happens cinema depicts a different sort of reality from Nothing Happens cinema, but one that’s nonetheless universal. We all have those one or two memories that burned so brightly and are seared so indelibly in our memories that we can’t relegate them to mere vignettes. We all have that one summer romance that flamed out far too soon, or that one road trip that mattered a bit more than the rest. Our becoming doesn’t happen at a constant speed. Rather, it’s filled with baby steps and backslides, and sometimes even quantum leaps. The very best Something Happens coming-of-age films are about those quantum leaps, and more importantly, the people our protagonists were before them and will become in their wake.
Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name are the millennial favorites in this year’s Oscar race, because millennials are still caught in that weird space in between being young and forgetting what that was like. We’re still putting together our own personal mythologies, so we find ourselves grasping just a bit more desperately at reflections that feel familiar to us on a visceral, intuitive level. A common piece of writer’s advice is to steal from the best. On a subconscious level, to identify with a piece of art is to steal from the best, because this art gives us a blueprint to understand some aspect of ourselves, which we add to our own personal collages, which will eventually add up to a blueprint all its own. We are all storytellers, after all.
More than anything, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, as well as the coming-of-age canon in general, are emblematic of the sheer eclecticism of the adolescent experience. We stumble through our becoming in different ways, but one thing is certain: This experience, whether mundane or memorable, is important. We are living through something, regardless of whether we spend our summers waiting tables at a coffee shop or vacationing in an Italian villa. That’s what coming-of-age is really about—adding together both the memorable and the unmemorable to create some semblance of a life.
And that’s hella tight.