L’Education des jeunes filles aux Etats-Unis

4 March 2018

Film review: Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig; The Florida Project, written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, directed by Sean Baker

Tocqueville’s observations on raising girls in the United States come with a cruel volte-face. At first, he writes admirably of the young women who tend to be freer, stronger, more confident, and less chaste than their European peers (DA II.3.9). And yet this praise abruptly gives way to the ominously titled chapter, “How the Traits of the Girl Can be Divined in the Wife.” Here he describes the complete forfeiture of feminine independence: “A girl turns her father’s house into a place of freedom and pleasure, whereas a wife lives in her husband’s home as in a cloister” (DA II.3.10). She trades her childhood spunk for matrimonial submission.


I thought of these pages from Democracy in America as I watched two of this year’s best movies, Lady Bird and The Florida Project. Both feature wily, willful American girls who seem exceedingly unlikely to grow up into puritanical women.


Lady Bird follows its heroine Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) through everyday late adolescence: she struggles over math quizzes and stumbles through sexual exploits—first with an earnest cast member in the school play, and later with a moody guitar player who reads Howard Zinn in his parents’ mansion. Christine, who insists on calling herself “Lady Bird,” longs to attend a private university on the East Coast and escape her hometown Sacramento, which she derides as “the Midwest of California.”


The woman seated in front of me at the campus theater (a Greek émigrée whom I recognized as a classmate from my intro Italian course) complained to her friend that the film was “very American.” She was right. Lady Bird’s angst over the college admissions process and whether or not to attend the prom are the stereotypical concerns of American high schoolers. This teenaged tug-of-war between conformity and self-assertion is, of course, a Hollywood trope. In this regard, the director, Greta Gerwig, doesn’t stray too far from the genre of Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. But Gerwig manages to work within the coming-of- age story quite well. Yes, Christine’s mother is overbearing and her father is unemployed, but the film forgoes any great personal tragedies. Instead, Gerwig captures the ordinary drama of a headstrong eighteen-year-old. Christine wants to drive herself to school but hasn’t bothered to get her license. She wants to become a writer but isn’t an especially attentive student. She schemes and shoplifts but is, somehow, tremendously likeable. She’s chatty and witty, even when she’s jumping out of her mother’s car or getting herself suspended.


Tocqueville wouldn’t have been surprised. Long before John Hughes or Gerwig brought the suburban high school experience to the big screen, the Frenchman observed:


I have often been surprised and almost frightened by the singular skill and pleasing audacity with which young American girls marshal thoughts and words while deftly negotiating the shoals of sprightly conversation. A philosopher might well stumble a hundred times along the narrow path these girls travel without incident or difficulty.


Christine is nothing if not audacious. She’s skilled in the quick retort and not shy about telling off her Catholic school teachers. There’s no philosophical method to her conversation, other than being aggressively endearing. In this sense, Christine exhibits the restless independence Tocqueville associates with American Protestants. Yes, Christine attends a parochial school, but this has more to do with the fact that her brother supposedly witnessed a stabbing at the public high, rather than any particular family religiosity. For Lady Bird, the habits of liberty surely trump religious beliefs.


Christine speaks her mind and does what she pleases. She delightfully illustrates Tocqueville’s democratic girl, shaped by “youthful impatience, ill-controlled desires, changing customs, frequently uncertain or impotent public opinion, weak paternal authority, and challenges to marital domination.” Here Tocqueville’s thoughts on the forgiving democratic father seem especially apt: Christine cajoles her dad into filling out her college financial aid forms behind her mother’s back.


Lady Bird generally hints that Christine will turn out alright. She spends much of her time bucking her mother’s sense of responsibility in favor of an irreverent liberty, but maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps Christine will manage to evade Tocqueville’s trap. It’s hard to imagine she won’t preserve her sprightliness and wit as she gets older.


But while Lady Bird concludes with Christine on the cusp of adulthood, the 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) still has a lot of childhood in front of her. This makes The Florida Project more poignant but also more troubling. The movie, directed by Sean Baker, takes place on the outskirts of Orlando, in a seedy motel called The Magic Castle. Moonee’s mom (Bria Vinaite) is an out-of-work stripper who does little in the way of parenting. But just because Moonee has never been to Disney World doesn’t mean she doesn’t create her own fun.


From Moonee’s perspective, the thoroughfare, littered with diners and discount chains, teems with adventure. Baker convinces us that, in the eyes of a first grader, a motel full of vacant rooms and junkies might be a marvelous place to play hide-and-seek. Somehow Baker makes overgrown parking lots look like The Jungle Book. The film captures what it’s like to move as a kid. Some of the most gorgeous scenes consist in little more than watching Moonee and her sidekicks swing their arms excessively as they cross the street. They bob their heads against the wall for no reason and enthusiastically run when anyone above the age of ten would walk. Moonee is the master of mischievous pleasures: she delights in watching her ice cream cone drip on the lobby floor, spying on topless sunbathers, and spitting on car windshields. When an angry motel neighbor insists Moonee clean up her mess, Moonee delights in that too. She sprays the Windex bottle with squeals of laughter.


The pathos of the film is that Moonee is being neglected but doesn’t quite know it yet. For her, relying on stolen meals from the local Waffle House means another chance to hike down the highway with her friends. Helping her mother assemble lewd photos to post on the Internet is a game of “swimsuit selfies.”


Moonee is energetic and naughty, and there’s no question that her virtue rests, in Tocqueville’s words, “more on the free effort of her will than on shaky or ruined safeguards.” The problem for Moonee, though, is that no amount of moxie can protect a 6-year-old from danger. We needn’t endorse Tocqueville’s portrait of Puritan matrimony to think Moonee deserves better parenting.


Moonee’s mother, Halley, is clearly struggling with her own transition to adulthood. She loves Moonee, but treats her more as an entertaining younger sister than a daughter. Halley looks to be in her early twenties, and we don’t learn any details about Moonee’s father. But Halley’s combination of violence, chest tattoos, and contempt for authority suggest her own youth has not been kind to her. Her habit of talking to Moonee as something of an equal—with all of the unfiltered frustration and profanity that implies—gives Moonee an oversized confidence. Moonee moves through the adult world with a sense of equal standing.


Bobby, the motel manager (William Dafoe) does his best to look after The Magic Castle kids. But he has washing machines to fix, walls to paint, and overdue rent to collect from the kids’ parents. He puts in long hours, as both a handyman and an unofficial social worker. Yet there’s a mounting anxiety as we realize that Bobby can only protect Moonee for the next few hours—certainly not for the coming weeks or years.


Moonee and her friends forge their own form of childish community, but this is unlikely to outlast the summer. Already she’s panhandling and setting fires, and Moonee’s behavior is bound to become more destructive. Late in the film, when a child services officer talks to Moonee like a normal 6-year-old, we feel the sting of her condescension. Moonee is not just insulted but confused. Gentleness, for a girl who’s already seen as much callousness as Moonee has, signals that something’s not right.


In the absence of adult responsibility, Moonee’s unchaperoned liberty leaves her exposed to the darker side of democratic society. Fistfights, malnutrition, and sex crimes are all facts of life at the motel where she lives. Yet this is a society where Moonee feels, at least for a time, a sense of equality.


As director, Baker’s tone isn’t judgmental, but neither is it especially forgiving. His film is one of dogged honesty about the adults and children who find themselves on the margins of American mores.


Lady Bird and The Florida Project both capture the pain and precocity of American girlhood. It seems safe to say neither Christine and Moonee will become the kind of housewife Tocqueville imagined in the nineteenth century. But that doesn’t mean growing up has gotten any easier.


Photo credit: A24, The Florida Project—Official Trailer [Screenshot], via Youtube, Fair Use.


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