How Lady Bird Subverts Rom-Com Tropes To Make The Film's Most Emotional Moments

Photo: Courtesy of A24.
Warning: This post contains spoilers for Lady Bird.
When you watch a romantic comedy, you expect certain narrative tropes. You know that, in most cases, boy will meet girl; girl and boy will fall in love; something will come along to separate boy and girl; boy will make a grand gesture and win back girl; they will live happily ever after — or at least until the sequel.
Lady Bird, at first glance, does not seem like a romantic comedy. It's a coming-of-age film that follows its eponymous character, played by Saoirse Ronan, through the trials and tribulations of being 17. Throughout the 90-minute run time, we see Lady Bird (given name Christine) fall in love (twice), discover heartbreak (twice), and vacillate between which version of herself she wants to inhabit at any particular moment. But what makes Greta Gerwig's directorial debut so special is that it lets Lady Bird's female relationships take up as much — if not more — space as her relationships with men.
There's no blueprint for the female coming-of-age film, like there is for the rom-com. And in a pleasantly surprising twist, some of the most romantic moments in Lady Bird are between women. Lady Bird's fraught relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalfe) is given the weight of a love interest in any other film, as is her truly moving friendship with Julie (Beanie Feldstein), whom she makes the classic rom-com grand gesture for when she shows up at her house on prom night after a big blowout fight, ready to be her date.
It's a testament to Gerwig's writing, and Beanie Feldstein's standout performance that Julie is more than just the chubby best friend. She's a complex character, with as many motivations and as much inner depth as Lady Bird herself, which makes their bond that much more meaningful. It's not the first time female friendship has been depicted onscreen. But it's certainly rare to see one treated with the same respect as a traditional romantic relationship.
On a recent phone call, we talked to Beanie Feldstein about female friendships in film, platform Sketchers, and why "Lady Bird" is so important right now.
Refinery29: I was totally a Julie in high school.
Beanie Feldstein: "Oh my gosh, yay! I love talking to Julies."
You could almost make a whole movie just about Julie.
"I think that’s what so brilliant about Greta’s script. You could make a whole film about Julie, you could make a whole film about Danny, you could make whole film about Kyle, about Father Leviathan. Every person that orbits around Lady Bird is so full feeling. That’s just such a compliment to [Greta’s] writing."
What originally drew you to Julie? What characteristics stood out to you?
"When I first read the script, and got the email, it said: ‘Julie is 17, sweet, chubby, gets the lead in her high school musical, and is a loyal friend to Lady Bird.’ And I was just kind of raising my hand in front of my computer, like ‘ This feels right!’ On first glance, I was like ‘ This is very true to who I am,’ and then as I got to know her more I started to see our differences. But why I’m so drawn to Julie is her immense loyalty and her true kindness. I think she’s a really loving, loyal person, and is so infatuated with Lady Bird, or ‘Birdie,’ as she calls her. She has this sweet vulnerability and sort of a shyness, [and] I’m much more of an outgoing, loud sort of person. But I think our love for people, and specifically friends, [is similar]. I felt very excited to play a girl like that.”
There are a lot of depictions of female friendships in film, but this one felt special in that it doesn’t take backseat to a relationship with a man.
"I am obsessed with watching things about female friends — Broad City is one of my favorite things ever. Saoirse and I are obsessed with Bridesmaids, we would quote it constantly on set — truly obsessed. And the core of that film is the relationship between Kristin Wiig and Maia Rudolph’s characters, and their friendship. I’ve never seen Julie and Lady Bird before. I’ve never watched that friendship before, and it’s just this constant understanding of each other. I think that’s why when Lady Bird starts to drift, or say things that are outside of their world, Julie is so confused. She’s just so effortlessly in sync with this person she loves so much that when she starts to think things that Julie would never think, she’s just like ‘Birdie…that’s not us.’ I think that the loyalty and the love, and the inherent understanding and the lack of judgment between the two of them is impossible not to love.
"The two most romantic moments in the film are between her and her mom and her and her best friend. And I think that’s so unique. If there are female teenage stories, they’re usually focused around a man, but for Lady Bird, Kyle and Danny teach her a lot, but it’s the moment when Lady Bird shows up at Julie’s house for prom that really feels like the romantic gesture that would be made in a film between a guy and a girl. And also when Marion comes back to the airport. That feels like the big romantic gesture that would be at the end of a heterosexual comedy, or coming-of-age film. The two most romantic-style moments in the film are between two women, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. And it’s just genius of Greta to make them the most sweeping moments."
That scene where you two are just crying and eating cheese is just so relatable. Was it improvised?
"No, Greta’s script is very fixed. It was great for me, because I come from theater, where the script is unchanging and the words are sort of heavenly in that way. You do not change them. And so that scene was in there, even down to “blocks of cheese, various sizes,” in Greta’s original script that I had read for my audition. But then the playfulness just comes from [the fact that] at that point, it was towards the end of our shoot, and Saoirse and I had been together for so long and fallen in love with each other, so there was this natural energy between us. And also, the scene before, when she comes to find me, that scene was a very heartbreaking, sad, tender scene. So just like Julie and Lady Bird, when they’re finished with that moment, all they want to do is enjoy each other again. Because they’ve been apart for so long that Julie is SO happy to see her. And all she wants to do is eat and hang out with her best friend, like they always do."
I was struck by how much you and Saoirse actually look like teenage girls. So many times you see movies set in high school and no one looks their age. What were the conversations like around that?
"Definitely! Our heads of makeup and hair, and costume were all in very close discussions with Greta, along with our production designer, and something that came up very early on as far as makeup goes was 'fresh face.' Like, not movie fresh face, where you’re wearing foundation, and mascara, and blush, and a tinted lipstick. Actually not wearing makeup unless it’s a scene where they would wear makeup. Maybe tinted moisturizer — just something that would look more natural. And specifically with Julie, we all were on the same page: she would never wear makeup, it would be completely beyond her. I didn’t wear makeup in high school, so if I didn’t, Julie definitely wouldn’t wear it. The only thing looks-wise about Julie that I was very specific about was that I wanted her to wear a thick Sketchers sneakers. It was very important to me and they were super on board. Because, you know, with uniforms, the only thing they really have to make it their own is shoes and accessories. I was like ‘It’s gotta be a thick Sketcher.’ I saw it in my head. It’s insanely comfortable, very durable, would last for a long time. She wouldn’t want to spend her mom’s money on shoes."
Did you ever have a crush on a hot teacher like Julie does in the film?
"Yeah! Even more so when I was in college, because I think I was so enamored with the way some of my professor’s brains worked, that I was attracted to their intellect."
What was your version of “Crash Into Me”?
"I do remember — I shouldn’t say this. My best friend Melanie — she’s the Julie and I’m the Lady Bird in our relationship, I think — was going through a breakup and I tried to put on Sara Bareilles, and she was like ‘IT’S TOO MUCH!’ She couldn’t handle it. And we were driving in the car to school. So that’s the thing that comes to mind. Sarah’s music is so sweeping and emotional. I’m still obsessed with her to this day."
Do you have any favorite high-school-themed movies?
"Obviously, The Breakfast Club."
The movie’s been getting such amazing reviews, and has a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Why do you think it’s been received this way?
“I think it’s deeply important, and I’m so proud, but not at all surprised, for Greta. I was a sociology major in college, so forgive me, but from a very early age, girls are expected to identify with male stories, but boys are never expected or asked to identify with female stories. Either girls don’t watch movies, or they watch movies about boys. So, not only has Greta made an exceptional female film, it’s the best version of this. I think it’s important for girls, and boys, and adults as well, to see what it feels like for a young girl to grow up. And not only has she made a story of that nature, but she’s made THE story. She’s captured the humanity of being 17 and being a female. The reason it’s so relatable — I’ve heard Greta say that the more something’s specific, the more universal it feels. And I think that Greta’s specificity is so hilarious at time, and heartbreaking at times, but it feels so rich and full. She’s done it!"
Watch Refinery29's Facebook Live with Feldstein below.
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