In the climactic scene of Greta Gerwig’s critically acclaimed movie Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan’s character Lady Bird (née Christine) demands that her mother write down a full accounting of what it cost to raise her. Ronan brandishes a yellow legal pad, yelling, “Give me a number! You give me a number for how much it cost to raise me, and I’m going to get older and make a lot of money and write you a check for what I owe you so that I never have to speak to you again!”
Some of the charm of the scene lies in Lady Bird’s insouciance — the idea that parenting could ever be fully accounted for, that independence from family can simply be bought — but within that overwrought moment of teenage anger lies a larger conversation about coming-of-age stories and class. When Lady Bird talks about independence and identity, she’s really talking about money. In Gerwig’s Lady Bird, developmental and narrative arcs are really economic ones.
Questions of class and coming-of-age are old ones in the history of literature and film, but the artistic conversation has been reinvigorated in three of this year’s most discussed movies: Lady Bird, The Florida Project, and Call Me by Your Name, all of which are up for Golden Globe awards this week. The ways in which these bildungsroman stories discuss and confront their characters’ class circumstances speak to a difficult, unfolding conversation in American cultural life about opportunity and independence. Just how much freedom do we have to chart our future? How much of our lives is predetermined by factors like where we grow up, our parents’ income, levels of education, and so on?
None of these three films present easy answers, or the same ones. We see poor people punished for making the only choices available to them, a middle-class teenager acutely aware that her parents’ “enough” will never be enough for her, and an upper-class teenager with the leisure time to discover himself. Conversations about growing up and opportunity in American life can never be separated from race, and it’s worth noting that — after Moonlight notably carved out territory for coming-of-age stories beyond whiteness and straightness last year — these three films are predominantly, and sometimes troublingly, white. But all of these narratives, even if they’re not deliberately or explicitly “about” privilege, create a world for their characters that is visibly shaped by privilege or the lack of it. And in that sense they mirror the way questions of money and class and “economic anxiety” have recently come to dominate the public discourse of the entire United States (rightly or not), and our ideas of what future is possible for everyone in it.
This fall, House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted a video clip of a speech he gave, in which he stated, “In our country, the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life. This is what makes America so great.” Twitter briefly lit up with users contrasting Ryan’s optimism with the more bracing realities of American life. Brandon Friedman, former deputy assistant for public affairs at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, put it best: “False. In America, the zip code of a person’s birth can predict educational attainment and life expectancy with a high degree of accuracy.” The clapback was true and troubling.
Ryan and Friedman were both right, in a sense. But if we may wish to live in Ryan’s dream, these films suggest we currently live in Friedman’s reality. In an age of staggering — and increasing — economic inequality, cultural consumers arrive at coming-of-age stories in the hopes of quelling our worst fears: that we are sentenced to the lives of our parents; that our class circumstances determine our future; that our choices are, in fact, prescribed. In Lady Bird, The Florida Project, and Call Me by Your Name, we see the answers to these questions play out in the economic lives of the characters and families, even when the answers aren’t the ones we want. Economic footing, in these stories, determines almost everything else, and self-actualization is very much contingent on zip code.
The coming-of-age story has a long history of providing complex answers to questions of upbringing. Bildungsroman narratives helped cement the novel as one of the first popular art forms in 17th-century England, as readers reveled in stories like Robinson Crusoe, in which the intrepid protagonist — long before he washes ashore off the coast of Brazil — rejects his father’s advice about the pleasures of the middle-class life awaiting him in England, and takes to sea.
Just as it’s almost impossible to think of popular narrative fiction without thinking of individualism and coming-of-age stories, it’s hard to think of American culture without characters like Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch, and, more recently, Oscar Wao. It’s also hard to picture modern American culture without movies like The Graduate, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, The Outsiders, Boyz n the Hood, Clueless, Garden State, Mean Girls, Superbad, Boyhood, Moonlight, and the like.
Part of our fixation on these tales is a cultural fetish for youth, but coming-of-age stories usually offer something more difficult than simple nostalgia. We see main characters straining against the cultural limitations of their surroundings, learning and struggling to sort out their relationship to society. Douglas Mao, a professor of literature at Johns Hopkins University, calls this part of the coming-of-age story “tuning,” as the protagonist learns what is or isn’t possible in their environment.
Famed literary critic Edward Said went further, suggesting that literary emphasis on coming-of-age is a system of social control and order. “The novelistic hero and heroine exhibit the restlessness and energy characteristic of the enterprising bourgeoisie, and they are permitted adventures in which their experiences reveal to them the limits of what they can aspire to, where they can go, what they can become.” In economic terms, Said’s theory of the bildungsroman implies that the main character either adapts to the social order or is run over by it. These concepts — Mao’s tuning, Said’s social control, and our own modern economic anxieties — each find new exploration in this year’s most celebrated coming-of-age films.
Sean Baker’s delightful and tragic The Florida Project is perhaps the most pessimistic of the bunch. It charts the story of 6-year-old Moonee — played by the remarkable Brooklynn Prince — and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who inhabit the Magic Castle motel in Orlando, in the shadow of Disney World. As a study of human development, the film offers an unflinching portrait of Moonee’s funny and discomfiting “adult” qualities, and Halley’s frustrating juvenile behavior. Both mother and daughter grow up in the film, either too soon or too late. Moonee is a charming nightmare, spitting, swearing, and conning her way through a world with too much freedom and not enough money. Halley is poor — fired from her job as an exotic dancer — and she makes increasingly desperate choices in order to earn money, and to provide a better life for Moonee, as the film progresses.
Baker’s movie drives into the heart of the economic American dream and the ways in which it’s a fantasy. The camera finds startling beauty even in obscene poverty, but the script presents a trickier portrait of blighted opportunity and personal responsibility. People like Grandma Stacy, the older neighbor whose car Moonee and her friends spit on in the opening scene, make their motel rooms cocoons of relative comfort, while Halley only moves to clean her space under the threat of a Child Protective Services visit. After Moonee and friends burn down an abandoned apartment complex, Halley’s friend Ashley keeps her son inside, away from the bad influence of the other kids. Ashley works a steady, if terrible, job at a diner; Halley ends up turning to sex work to pay rent. These circumstances are a prison — the motel, the poverty, the minimum-wage jobs — but some characters do what they can to mitigate the worst of their lot. And, in that sense, there remains a sliver of the old capitalist fantasy of personal responsibility and decency in the film.
We know well what Moonee’s future holds by the end of the story, and we know why. The film intermittently suggests a politics of respectability — characters fighting to maintain decency amid the blight — while largely suggesting a mountain of stacked odds against the motel’s denizens. Part of the film’s sentimentality is Baker’s ability to generate sympathy for Halley and Moonee, despite their behavior. Halley’s choices are shot through with the desperation of having to find money for the next meal or the next rent payment, a myopic horizon that doesn’t allow for reflection or planning.
In more privileged circumstances, the magic of American capitalism might produce better outcomes, but here, the dream is a nightmare. An ethic of personal responsibility hinges on choice, and as Halley’s decision-making turns toward the perverse, we find ourselves able to muster sentiment, but not judgment. What chance do the residents of the motel realistically have? How does American life produce anything other than want?
The world of The Florida Project, in this sense, may evoke memories of Disney’s ‘90s ad campaigns for Disney World. As a kid, if you couldn’t go, you had an acute sense that you might have been born into the wrong family. If you had better — or richer — parents, they would surely take you to such a magical place. The film ends with what is possibly a fantasy sequence, in which Moonee and her friend Jancey escape to Disney World, even if just for an impossible moment. The scene is shot (illicitly, on an iPhone) to convey a kind of feverish joy, but it’s also a sober reminder that you cannot get to truly know the world without confronting your position in it.
Lady Bird, for all its DIY veneer, suggests a similarly capitalistic understanding of growing up. Lady Bird lies to a rich girl at her school, saying that she lives in a nicer neighborhood than she does, in the hopes that this fiction will make for a friendship. Screenwriter and director Greta Gerwig paints the rich kids as embarrassing and entitled, but Lady Bird, despite her eventual rejection of the rich clique, seeks economic independence, too.
Money is everywhere in the movie. Lady Bird’s brother Miguel is mocked by the family for his facial piercings and how they hurt his career prospects, judged for wasting a Berkeley education on a job bagging groceries. Miguel eventually takes his piercings out and gets a corporate job — a position, it turns out, that his father was applying for, too. What could be a bleak commentary on fathers, sons, and the modern economy instead becomes a triumphant tale of Miguel “growing up.” But what has the world taught Miguel, and what does the movie teach when it depicts this worldview? Here we see the cynical “return on investment” thinking that seeps into Lady Bird.
Lady Bird, as she moves toward self-acceptance, a classic trope of the coming-of-age tale, similarly seeks the appeal of bumptious capitalism. She secretly applies to expensive East Coast colleges, turning her nose up at state schools like UC Davis. Her first wealthy boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges), arrives at Lady Bird’s house with a joke about how she actually lives on the “other side of the tracks,” a line that reads as funny in the trailer for the film, but lands with a bracing thud in the context of the movie. Lady Bird’s shame about her family’s circumstances, and her delight in passing muster with Danny’s family, does not read as identity crisis but as identity formation. If the movie’s dramatic problem is self-acceptance, the parallel plot is Lady Bird’s unwavering desire to switch sides of the tracks.
Howard Zinn’s classic Marxist text, A People’s History of the United States, is used as a visual punchline when Lady Bird first sees Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), her second love interest, reading it in a coffee shop. As they start seeing each other, Lady Bird begins reading it, too. Kyle is a recognizable type as a laughable, upper-class Marxist, but the use of Zinn’s book paints left-wing politics and economics as just one more thing to discard on the way to adulthood.
When Lady Bird finally rejects Kyle on prom night, the final straw is her love of the Dave Matthews Band song “Crash Into Me,” which Kyle mocks. In Gerwig’s world, growing up means realizing that mainstream rock is cool and Howard Zinn is an idealistic crank. Perhaps Lady Bird’s matriculation at New York University in post-9/11 New York is the most telling choice of all, as that was the era in which its tuition started to climb into the territory of the most expensive private colleges in the US. In 2011, NYU created more student debt than any other (nonprofit) American university.
Not unlike The Florida Project, Lady Bird has an ending that is both saccharine and unsettling. Lady Bird calls home on her cell phone to leave a heartfelt voicemail, and her coming-of-age is complete. We aren’t encouraged to think — although some might anyway — of the mountain of student debt under which Lady Bird/Christine will toil for decades, or the idea that she will graduate into a job market about to turn itself into a global financial crisis, or what could happen to a person, spiritually speaking, who looks down their nose so pointedly at things like public education. Instead, Lady Bird’s path to growing up and self-acceptance runs right through the most atomized, individualist understanding of one’s relationship to the world. Growing up in Lady Bird apparently means selling out to a larger institution, and selling out isn’t a problem, so long as you’re getting a good price.
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name places its protagonist, Elio, in the opposite economic footing to Lady Bird and Moonee’s upbringing, and crafts a world of abundance: The orchards are full of peaches, the house full of hired help to do the cooking and the wash, and even the river produces big fish for dinner. Guadagnino’s camera lingers on these rich images of the setting, not unlike in The Florida Project, but here soaking up the life of cosmopolitan American academics in northern Italy.
The movie, like the lives of the main characters, feels unrushed. The servants skitter about the Italian villa that Elio’s mother has inherited, cooking, fixing bikes, clearing dishes, setting tables for long lunches in the yard. When Armie Hammer’s Oliver, a graduate student hired for the summer by Elio’s professor father, asks about getting a bank account in town, Elio’s father remarks that none of the previous graduate students had one. Near the end of the film, Elio’s jilted girlfriend asks him where he’s been for the last three days and he replies, “I had to work,” getting the biggest laughs of any line in the film. In this world, work is a punchline.
This portrait is something beyond economic security; Call Me by Your Name removes money from the equation altogether. Freedom from capitalist formations, in the film’s expatriate world, involves having enough money that money ceases to matter. Elio and Oliver’s relationship blossoms over long afternoon bike rides and dips in the river, all made possible by leisure time. Elio first confesses his affections for Oliver on a trip to town, a journey that begins with Elio saying, “I can go. I’m not doing anything today.” The very fabric of the world of Call Me by Your Name rests on the notion that dynamic selfhood can happen in a world of “not doing” things. The labor in the film is exclusively emotional.
In a world freed from financial concerns, it seems Elio can thrive whether he’s eating (or doing other things with) a peach, becoming a musical virtuoso, or beginning to accept himself as a gay man. In a way that aligns with Lady Bird’s dreams of economic security, Call Me by Your Name suggests that abundance is the real freedom. While Moonee is ultimately shaped by want, and Lady Bird struggles to break free of it, it seems Elio is saved from both scarcity and judgment. His parents know about and approve of his relationship with Oliver by the end of the movie, which closes with his father’s monologue on the importance of love and loss.
But if Guadagnino’s film presents affluence as a pathway to self-actualization, one must wonder how many people will ever get to walk that path. In the language of modern class debates, Elio’s childhood is somewhere in the top of the 1 percent. In the film’s last scene, we see Elio’s face as he cries in the foreground. Behind him, out of focus, scurries the housekeeper, setting the table for a Hanukkah dinner. It’s a reminder that behind stories of upper-class self-actualization like Elio’s is the hard and often unseen work of people who have none of his luxury.
Even in resisting the circumstances of our upbringing, we find ourselves being carved and shaped by it. Paul Ryan’s vision of an America where one can be whatever one wants doesn’t seem to hold up in the world of these films: People are irrevocably shaped by the circumstances and economics of their upbringing. Our environments tune us, tell us our boundaries, and sometimes break us into a million pieces.
We all want someone to look at us the way Elio’s father does at the end of Call Me by Your Name: to send a signal we’re okay, that the person we’re becoming is good and strong, that the future is both bright and full of delightful uncertainty. This message, like a future of choices, is a luxury of the well-to-do. Moonee will never receive it, and Christine does — at least from her father — but finds its bank account wanting.
Coming-of-age is painful, which is part of why we keep telling and watching its story. We find ourselves lodged in old questions of determinism and free will, both bound to repeat the pain of our forebears and grasping at the possibility of transcending it. There’s hope in the mystery. That we seem to forget the ending doesn’t make the story any less worth telling. ●
Geoff Nelson is a music and culture writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Paste Magazine.