Desperately Seeking Wren

In her documentary Confessions of a Suburban Girl, director Susan Seidelman examines the Patriarchal social conditioning she and her peers were hindered with as teens in 1960s suburbia. Trained from birth to be dutiful housewives safely tucked away from the dangers of The Big City where their husbands would work, these girls were “protected” to the point of suffocation. It’s no surprise, then, that Seidelman and her frustrated buds idolized the “Bad Girls” of their community: the leather jacket-wearing, go-go dancing, sexually adventurous reprobates that were meant to be serve as cautionary tales but instead registered as heroes who bested the system. You can easily detect this fascination with the defiant Bad Girl archetype in both of Seidelman’s first two features as a director. In her debut (and our current Movie of the Month), the 1982 No Wave drama Smithereens, Seidelman takes us on a grimy, dispirited tour of post-punk NYC under the guidance of Wren (played by Susan Berman) – a selfish, cunning brat who will exploit anyone in her orbit if it means surviving another day. Smithereens is a fascinating character study of a desperate Bad Girl who’s running low on resources to keep her deviant, starving-artist lifestyle going, to the point where she threatens to abandon audience sympathies entirely with each new grift. Wren is more of an anti-hero (as well as her own antagonist) in that way. For a truly heroic portrait of a Bad Girl from the Big City, you’d have to look to Seidelman’s big studio follow-up to Smithereens: Desperately Seeking Susan.

None other than 80s (and 90s & 00s) pop icon Madonna stars as the titular Bad Girl in Siedelman’s second feature – a character who’s infinitely cooler & more lovable than the prickly, survival-minded Wren. Susan represents a fantasy of what a bohemian life in the Big City would look like to a sheltered woman from the suburbs in desperate need of adventure & romance. Roseanne Arquette costars as the audience surrogate: a terminally bored, milquetoast housewife who looks to Bad Girls like Susan as escapist wish-fulfillment fantasies. After stalking this strange woman through her personals ads in newspapers, our protagonist finds herself trailing Susan in real life as well. She leaves the sheltered safety of the suburbs to follow Susan around NYC like a cartoon character floating behind the steam trail of a cooling pie, totally mesmerized. This fascination is clearly more about envy than desire, and the movie-magic fantasy of the picture is a traditionally farcical mix-up of concussions, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities wherein the two women swap lives for a short, wacky time. In Smithereens, Seidelman fixates on the harsher realities of what Bad Girls from the Big City would have to do to scrape by since her freedoms require a life without safety nets. Desperately Seeking Susan is more about the romantic fantasy of that lifestyle as seen from an outsider’s perspective, something she and her peers shared as sheltered teens. In both instances, a life of suburban doldrums is effectively framed as a prison sentence in contrast to the daily struggles of a Big City free-spirit who answers to no one – except when she’s negotiating a place to sleep that night.

Desperately Seeking Susan is decidedly less punk & less challenging than Seidelman’s No Wave debut, but it’s still just as interested in the lives of frustrated, bored women in search of a life worth living. Both films work exceedingly well as a guided tour of 1980s NYC and as period-specific fashion lookbooks. That latter concern may be the only area where Susan truly outshines Wren. Every single outfit Madonna wears in Desperately Seeking Susan is impossibly perfect, and most of the excitement of the picture is in the suspense of what she (or the concussed woman who mistakenly believes she is her) is going to wear next. Wren’s tour of a post-punk NYC is a little more useful from a street-level documentarian standpoint, but Susan’s adventures in the city do happen to touch on some gorgeous dive bar & thrift store locales, as well as an insanely dense list of soon-to-be-somebody personalities of the era: Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro, Ann Magnuson, Steven Wright, The Honeymoon Killers’s Shirley Stoller, the triplets from Three Identical Strangers, etc. etc. etc. Seidelman invites this 1:1 comparison between Wren & Susan in the very first scene of the film, where Madonna is introduced taking selfies with a Polaroid camera in a direct echo of one of Smithereens’s most iconic scenes. Whereas Smithereens is a bummed-out reality check of what the Bad Girl lifestyle means for people who have no choice but to live it, though, Desperately Seeking Susan is a “The clothes make the woman” fantasy where being a Bad Girl only means liberation from a life of dutiful housework & childrearing. Both perspectives are valid, and both are made more valuable when considered in tandem.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the No Wave summer-bummer drama Smithereens (1982), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at the director’s suburban beginnings before moving to the big city.

-Brandon Ledet

Lady Bird (2017)

Greta Gerwig’s debut feature as a writer-director (after several notable collaborations with eternal sourpuss Noah Baumbach) has quickly become something of a smash hit, even though it’s only screening in a few hundred theaters in its initial, slowly expanding release. Lady Bird currently has the highest per-theater average attendance for any film in 2017, which is remarkable for a work so formally & tonally unassuming. Essentially telling the story of a deeply flawed teen brat navigating her own newly-forming identity & impulses towards selfishness over the course of a single year, there isn’t much on the surface of Lady Bird that would suggest why it’s being watched & rewatched with such veracity and topping so many early drafts of Best of the Year lists. It’s when you get into the details of the picture that its resonation & mass appeal makes more sense. Having graduated from a Catholic high school my parents could barely afford in the early 00s, I felt as if the picture were made specifically for me. Growing up in Sacramento, California before moving away to the opposite end of the country at a young age, the person I watched the movie with more or less felt the same: Lady Bird was made specifically for them. I’ve been reading similar accounts in many of the film’s early, elated reviews as well. Obviously, not every single person who watches the picture is going to be able to personally relate to its characters & setting in that way, but Gerwig packs the picture with enough meticulously distinctive details that when you see a familiar location or sign of financial struggle or complicated relationship that reflects something in your own life, you’ll feel as if she made a film for you alone and no one else. I have to assume that personal recognition of individual details has to directly affect its apparent universality, as self-contradictory as that may sound.

Saoirse Ronan stars as a disenchanted high school senior “with a performative streak” who dreams of moving far away from her suburban home town of Sacramento as soon as she graduates. Like in many coming of age stories told in that framework, she mostly struggles with her self-identity and what horrors or pleasures her future might hold. She gives herself the alias “Lady Bird” as a pretentious expression of independence. She daydreams along with her theater kid peers of futures in romantic locales like Paris & New York. Her reality is much more limited than that fantasy suggests, a conflict that weighs heaviest on her relationship with her mother, an overworked psychiatric nurse played by Laurie Metcalf. Lady Bird rebels unnecessarily against many people & institutions who don’t deserve it: caring nuns, her best friend, her older brother, Sacramento as a concept. None are as giving or as frustrated with her as her mother, though, and the movie is just as much about the intricacies of their uneasy bond as it is about Lady Bird learning empathy & autonomy. The way they can argue bitterly about how money & class affect their status in the community in one breath and mutually break down over an audiobook in the next feels true to life, so it’s rewarding that there are no easy solutions or revelations within their dynamic as the movie wraps up its year-in-the-life plot. Lady Bird barrels through her final year under her mother’s & her Catholic high school’s roofs, hurting everyone in her path to escape like the clumsy teenage monster that she is (and we all were). Sometimes these wounds can be repaired. Sometimes the relationships remain fractured, but endure anyway. Mostly, Lady Bird dares to test every boundary she’s fenced within and (hopefully) learns who she is as a newly-formed person in the process of making many, many mistakes.

It’s initially difficult to pinpoint exactly what distinguishes Lady Bird as a high school comedy and Gerwig as a filmmaker, considering how many times this narrative has been told before. The recent coming of age sleeper The Edge of Seventeen already re-invigorated the high school teen comedy by being honest about how unlikable & flawed most people are at that age. There’s also major echoes of works like Rushmore & Ghost World that were actually released when Lady Bird was set in the early 00s (although with significantly cooler soundtracks; Lady Bird has a much worse taste in music than Enid or Max Fischer, hilariously so). Not all of Gerwig’s strengths as a filmmaker result from the intimate specificity of her writing, however. What’s most formally impressive about Lady Bird is not necessarily that it captures so many intimately specific moments of early 00s teen rites of passage (getting stoned & microwaving junk food to third wave ska, awkwardly slow dancing to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony at a high school dance, ungodly awful theater auditions/exercises, etc.), but that they hit the screen so rapidly & with such confidence. Lady Bird is a feat in editing room craft, summarizing an entire, pivotal year in its protagonist’s life through deftly-detailed montage. The movie is resonating personally with so many individual audience members because it is so tightly packed with isolated images & exchanges in an onslaught of free flowing montages. The way time passes in these stretches plays both as a laugh-a-minute comedy and an emotionally devastating drama, especially when moments are unexpectedly cut short or drastically extended for emphasis. In one of the film’s more defining exchanges, Lady Bird pleads with her mother to break her angry silence in what feels like a scene pulled from a harshly acidic stage play, but is caught between two much lighter, brighter sequences of small-scale triumph. Lady Bird’s editing techniques are deceptively simplistic, but immensely impactful in summarizing an entire year in a life not yet fully-defined.

It’s by no means one of the flashier filmmaking feats of the year, but there’s a pretty solid chance that something (if not everything) in Lady Bird will resonate with you on a personal level. Although a massive number of people respond to the picture by insisting Gerwig made it specifically for them, they can’t all be wrong. She’s speaking to her audience on a distinctively personal level, especially on issues of teen identity exploration and familial struggles with selfishness & class. The rapid fire editing and believably genuine performances from Ronan & Metcalf only serve to drive that vision home and make room for a memorable, personalized emotional response. Lady Bird initially appears to be a continuation of a well-worn type of story we’ve all seen before, but once you’re immersed in its defining details, there’s something remarkably individualistic about it that worms its way into whatever’s left of your frustrated teenage heart.

-Brandon Ledet