"Why are you crying?" Lady Bird asks her best friend. "Just crying, some people aren't built happy, you know?" Julie, sitting on the couch in a yellow oversized t-shirt dress, hair tied in a messy bun, replies. Lady Bird, with a worried expression on her face, envelops her in a hug. The scene then cuts to them laughing while eating cheese by the kitchen counter.
There are moments in a film that make you pause, scenes that compress years of your life into seconds. There are tears in my eyes each time this interaction plays out. I cry not because the moment makes me sad but because it temporarily releases me from the eternal clutches of cause and effect that my feelings have been held hostage to. It makes me smile a few seconds later because it reiterates the ordinariness of happiness. My go-to feel-good movie is Greta Gerwig's directorial debut, Lady Bird.
"Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness a story." Feel-good movies I think stand somewhere in the middle of this spectrum that Leo Tolstoy created. Feel-good was a term I used interchangeably with guilty pleasure most of my teen years. To me whatever made me laugh or gave the comfort of the known was qualified to be categorised as a feel-good movie. It is an easy enough mistake to make when the distinction between the two is so deeply personal that the terms can blur into each other. But the most intimate thing about a feel-good movie is that each individual gets to define it on their own terms, each definition being as right as the other. It was a couple of years ago that the term started developing its identity outside of the premise of being 'happy' for me. I feel good when on days I am emotionally bottled up and a movie allows me to cry, I feel good when my anger finds a voice in a character, I feel good when the vastness of the world seems a little less because of a connection a storyline provides. With age, I have found there are various emotional dimensions to the phase feel-good.
Christine 'Lady Bird' Macpherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a girl who wants to be more than her circumstances and upbringing, something more than herself. The film is about her frequent bouts with this want. "I want to live through something," she tells her mother (a brilliant Laurie Metcalf) and the passion in her words makes it clear that she is a character ready to drown her narrative in drama. It is evident when she wants to be addressed by her chosen name and not by a name forced on her by her parents. You see it in her need to create friendships with a popular classmate by lying about where she lives or when she vandalises her favourite teacher's car to seem cool. It peeks through when she spends Thanksgiving with her boyfriend's rich family rather than her own or in her need to act in a way that her artistic and nonchalant crush likes. She is so underwhelmed with her life that she creates her own hurdles, just to overcome something. She is out to create a persona, but it is difficult to build something when you keep knocking down the foundation.
Her hate for her hometown, Sacramento, is the looming metaphor of the movie. She dislikes the slow pace, the mundanity, and modesty of the town. She is in truth disgusted by how she is a part of it all, she hates how much she is in love with it. So, she runs, mostly figuratively and sometimes physically until she ends up at the other side of the country. In the last scene of the movie, she is sitting on the steps of a church in New York, now Christine after reclaiming her birth name, she calls her parents. "Did you feel emotional the first time you drove in Sacramento?" she asks her mother. There is acknowledgment in those words, acceptance is still an uphill journey. But just in that moment, she stops running, planting her foot down. She is strong and sturdy now, her roots a part of her, ready for new building blocks to be added.
I believe that films find you at the right time in life. Lady Bird came to me when I was a college student in London. I had moved there when I was eighteen and was submerged in the potluck of identities that is the city. In between my general struggles with studies, work, and a social life, I had the daunting task of learning to live alone. I noticed myself more, especially the fact that I had spent little to no time on understanding myself. The perfectly structured routine of the school, financial security, and the focus on scoring good grades never seemed to leave enough time for thoughts on identity. I realised that you learn about yourself through context and being a student in a government school in India provided with very little of that. Lady Bird playing on my tiny laptop screen, in my tiny overpriced room didn't bring about a tectonic shift, I didn't understand myself any better at the end of the 90 minutes, I barely have in the years since. It's not like Arjun's underwater experience in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, I didn't learn the secrets of life in one dive, so I keep going back for my doses.
My favourite feel-good movie makes me smile and cry in equal measure. But I don't turn to Lady Bird for something so fleeting. I come back to it because for an hour and a half it makes everything okay. It makes the days in the bed I cry for no reason okay, and it makes my naïve and pure happiness because of the sound of popcorn in the microwave okay. It makes my multi-faceted simplicity okay. Lady Bird is not my story but it is an allegory of me, the metaphor of hometown doesn't apply to an army brat like me but the story growing up does. Happiness and unhappiness combine to create the key ingredient of a feel-good movie, a sense of belonging. Because good films help you empathise with people you have never met but a feel-good movie helps you empathise with the self.