The Millennial Quest for Identity

In the Cathedral with Lady Bird

Trevor Almy / 9.14.23

Perhaps more than any other, the millennial generation has been animated by the holy value of identity. Consider the litany of origin stories that predominate the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most pervasive movie franchise around. For those of us who are between the ages of 28-40, ours is a generation that is obsessed with the who. Perhaps it is no surprise then that the twenty-first century witnessed the advent of Facebook, the ultimate identity platform. The problem is that with Facebook it is not so much true identity that is on display as is a presentation of ourselves, a version of us in a succession of statements, images, and videos that we have carefully curated. Thus, Facebook, and all other social media like it, raise the more thought-provoking question which is not one of who we are but of who we want to appear to be.

Films that have defined the millennial generation center around questions of identity and individuality. Much attention has been devoted to the so-called entitlement generation but less has been given to the outcome of being told you are special during your formative years: you believe the opposite. In a great reversal of expectations, the more young people were told that they were unique, the more they doubted, or, perhaps more precisely, the more they countered with the question of, “How?” Our generation is the generation that responds to the discovery of our own ubiquity with the same kind of destabilizing disillusionment of Buzz Lightyear upon discovering he’s a toy. In Toy Story (1995), Buzz’s uncritical acceptance of his own specialness followed by a loss-of-innocence and radical revelation of his own commonplace nature mirrors the quest of the Millennial.

But whether it’s the gullibility of the space ranger of Pixar’s animated film or a Tom Hanks narration telling us that “life is like a box of chocolates,” we believe in the myth that everything would unfold to our own personal happiness, a kind of cosmic coincidence that would lead to self-knowledge. And when life doesn’t, we feel detached from the world and one particular place this manifests itself is in disconnection from the workplace (more millennials report being dissatisfied with their work than any other generation). Some of us seek to resolve our identity crisis by figuring out what went wrong in our emotional upbringing. Garden State is our generation’s The Graduate and Andrew Largeman is our Everyman who embodies our own restlessness and angst at feeling so removed from, well, feeling anything. The feelings of ennui and isolation Zach Braff’s film depicts resonates with the cultural zeitgeist and lingers even to this day for many millennials. To cope, we medicate ourselves with social media, but this only augments our isolation as we delay forging real connections and accept the false narrative that we are defined by what we consume and by what we broadcast to the culture.

More recently, the 2017 film Lady Bird directed by Greta Gerwig examines how identity is discovered not through performance but through acceptance given and received in real relationships. In the movie, a senior at a Catholic high school named Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) rebels against her given identity by assuming the moniker “Lady Bird.” Desiring to attend a sophisticated New York City college, she clashes with her mom, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who is herself struggling as a nurse to provide for their family after the father recently lost his job.

Funneling the angst of the turn of the millennium adolescence, the film places the protagonist in a location that she rejects: Sacramento (“It’s the midwest of California.”). The director is able to reinvent the tired coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence tale by subverting some of its tropes and by being selective in what milestones it shows us and which ones it doesn’t show us. Ultimately, the film embodies the millennial angst and journey for identity that was inseparable from the first Bush term and economic collapse. Interspersed through the movie are references to the Iraq invasion, which parallel the displacement that the main character feels in her home state. What’s more is the work is about how identity is connected to place and that although we may be physically stationary, we can be figuratively restless. Thus “coming home” sometimes means we relocate only to return to the image of our ancestral land.

The titular character, in an inversion of expectations, wants to go east. Previous cinematic road trips and coming-of-age narratives have been predominantly about the desire to move west. Yet for Lady Bird, she romanticizes the east coast as a place of education and liberation. For a girl attending a private Catholic school, she is self-aware of her family’s financial difficulties and tells whoever will listen that she is, “from the wrong side of the tracks (Gerwig plays this to humorous effect later when we learn later that Lady Bird actually lives across a set of literal railroad tracks).”

The film opens with a shot of mother and daughter returning from a college trip after having listened to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which, ironically, is about a family on a western road trip. Following the ending of the audio, mom wants to sit in silence and marinate in what they have just heard while daughter reaches for the radio. This is emblematic of the conflict between the two that recurs throughout the entire narrative: the mother is wanting to be present in the moment; the daughter is restless and doing everything to leave the moment. Lady Bird’s stubbornness wins out as she entices her mom into conversation. Thus, we watch them in blistering banter until the protagonist throws herself from the moving vehicle and receives a cast on her arm for the entire movie as a result.

And so the theme of healing is evident in that Lady Bird’s broken arm is symbolic of her spiritual brokenness. Externally, she is able to motion all the signs of faith, and motion she does as there are a lot of religious genuflections and gesticulations in the beginning frames: the sign of the cross, outward extensions of the hands, kneeling, and bowing. Yet what is restricting her movement of grace is not the literal cast she wears but the invisible one, the one we cannot see. Juxtapose the performance of faith with her performance in theater and it becomes clear that, coinciding with her struggle for identity, she is seeking her role. Nuns laugh at her when she talks about joining the math team or applying to Ivy League schools. Undeterred, she seeks the assistance of her father to get the application fees necessary to try and receive financial aid.

The father is worth reflecting on in Lady Bird, because he defies the stereotypical depiction of the male authority in most movies. He is not absent, doltish, or abusive. Rather, he is the most endearing character in the film because of his generosity and grace. He is irenic and compassionate. In such a way, he is a mirror of our Heavenly Father and of the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. For example, he drives Lady Bird to school and, although he wants to take her all the way to the building, he bears the burden of shame wordlessly when she asks to be dropped off further away. Additionally, he suffers in silence as we learn later in the film that he has been battling depression for a long time, unbeknownst to his daughter. When the father loses his job and goes in to interview for an upcoming, innovative company (one cannot help but think of the .com businesses of the early millennium), he is the victim of ageism and laughed off by the potential employer. As he is walking out, he encounters his son Miguel who is dressed in suit-and-tie and going in to interview for the same job. Rather than storm out in anger or simmer in jealousy, the father exhibits one of the most tender and generous moments in film: he straightens his son’s tie, pats him on the back, and says, “Go get ’em.”

I cannot help but identify with Lady Bird on numerous levels as there are a high number of parallels with my own life. The film’s timeline (set in the academic year of 2002-2003) aligns with my own senior year of high school, and I also found myself having to work for financial aid to break with tradition and to go to a liberal arts college instead of the state school the rest of my family matriculated into and graduated from. I remember my senior year of high school as being a time in which I also had a wanderlust and a desire to explore somewhere new. I was ready to escape my hometown of Lawrenceville, Georgia where I had lived my whole life and go to a new place. For me, I found that location in northern Georgia at the bucolic Berry College, 28,000 acres of pasture, forest, and mountains. It was there that I experienced a kind of intellectual flourishing and an academic awakening.

For Lady Bird, when she arrives east, she senses that there is still an unfulfilled and discontented part of herself that cannot be fixed with a geographic change. She is still yearning and going through a religious crisis as evidenced by her comments to a boy she meets at a party, “People don’t believe in God, but they call each other by names their parents made up for them.” Although the film does not provide easy answers for conflicts of faith and existential angst, the parting moments leave us with Lady Bird shedding her self-constructed name and identity and embracing her given name, which, fittingly, is Christine. The gospel implications of such a name could not be any clearer: she is going by the feminized title of Christ. Thus, the theme that emerges is that once Christine has stopped performing and begun accepting her identity, she is home. Moreover, we are left with the protagonist returning to a familiar locale: she goes into a Cathedral for Mass. In a movie where place has featured prominently, the last location is a church and is also its most enduring one. Are we surprised then when Christine calls her mom and leaves a reconciliatory voicemail? Resting in our birthright as believers restores our relationship not only with God but also with others.

That’s good news for the questing millennial. That’s good news for anyone.

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