This post contains spoilers for Lady Bird.
If you’ve seen Lady Bird, you’ve likely marveled at the sensitive performances given by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. You’ve possibly had a flush of recognition at Justin Timberlake and the Dave Matthews Band on the soundtrack And, if you’re anything like me, you’ve argued argued over one plot point in the film in particular: Did Lady Bird make the right college choice?
To recap: The question of where the titular Sacramento teen will go to college hangs over the film from the very first scene. “I hate California,” she tells her mother on the way back from visiting West Coast schools. “I want to go to the East Coast. I want to go to where culture is — New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.” The problem, though, is that her family can’t really afford it. As Lady Bird’s mother keeps reminding her, they’re teetering on the edge of the middle class as it is; she needs to go to a local school, which would be much cheaper. The college debate is the central conflict of the film in a nutshell — Lady Bird is a head-in-the-clouds dreamer, mom is grounded and pragmatic, and after a lot of tears, they eventually learn to accept the value of the other’s point of view.
For most of the movie, then, it seems like the college decision could go either way. Lady Bird eventually opens herself up to the beauty of Sacramento, and it’s easy to envision an ending where she chooses an affordable school close to home, and builds a happy, unique life for herself there. But that’s not what happens: With the secret assistance of her unemployed father, Lady Bird applies to a school in New York City … and gets in! Her family refinances their house to go toward her tuition, and the movie’s denouement sees our heroine experiencing a typical Welcome Week at an unnamed New York university that’s almost certainly New York University. (She gets off the subway at West Fourth Street, hangs out in Washington Square, and seems to live in Rubin Hall.)
All in all, a happy ending, but we know something the characters don’t. It’s 2003, which means that in a few years, the economy is about to take a nosedive. (It’s a credit to writer-director Greta Gerwig that she doesn’t underline this; the movie’s voice stays firmly in the present tense.) The modest house that Lady Bird’s parents refinanced will plummet in value. If her father ever gets another job, there’s a fair chance he’ll be laid off again, and her older brother might be, too, since California had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. The health-care industry was also hit hard, since so many people lost their employer-issued insurance, but even if Lady Bird’s mom keeps her job, we saw in the movie how taking all those double shifts was wearing her out. And for Lady Bird herself, who will graduate in 2007 right before the bubble bursts, those first few post-college years are going to be rough.
The experience of my girlfriend offers one real-life version of how things could shake out: She came to NYU a few years after Lady Bird did, from Phoenix. Her parents both worked in real estate, which meant that when the housing market crashed in the fall of her sophomore year, they suddenly couldn’t afford it anymore. She had to leave everything behind and transfer to Arizona State, where her last two years of college were pretty miserable. (She says she made exactly one friend.)
Knowing in hindsight that Lady Bird will graduate with vast amounts of debt, into an uncertain job market, was NYU the right choice? Certainly there are benefits: Besides the fun mental image of Lady Bird crossing paths with future celebrities — she could have sat next to Donald Glover (NYU class of ’06) in class, or been an RA for Rachel Bloom, Miles Teller, or Ilana Glazer (all ’09) — you could argue that she got the chance to build a network in New York, where the job prospects for young people with college degrees have been better than elsewhere in the country, though they’re still not great. And it’s not like people who graduated from West Coast colleges had an easy time of it, either (though, again, the mountains of debt would be smaller).
Certainly, going to school in New York worked out for Gerwig. While studying at Barnard, she tried her hand at various creative pursuits and eventually landed on acting. She got hooked up with the emerging mumblecore scene before graduation, which set her down the road that eventually led to her making Lady Bird. But, as Greta Gerwig will be the first to tell you, Lady Bird is not Greta Gerwig — not least because Gerwig is an incredibly talented and driven artist, and Lady Bird, refreshingly, is not. She’s the rare movie protagonist who’s basically an ordinary, average person; it’s fair to say she’s not going to spend her 20s becoming queen of the indie scene.
So, did Lady Bird make the right college choice? With hindsight, if we’re looking at things through a strictly financial lens, it’s hard to endorse her decision. But if there’s one thing we know about Lady Bird, it’s that when everybody says don’t, she says yes.