• Tue. May 28th, 2024

Mothers and Daughters in ‘Lady Bird’

ByFlorence O'Neill

Mar 12, 2023
Saoirse Ronan

“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”

In 2017 our screens were blessed with Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. The film follows a young girl, self-named Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), at the end of her time in high school as she navigates the next stage of her life. Lady Bird is a coming-of-age phenomenon for young women that perfectly captures the instability of a post-9/11 America and the rocky nature of finding oneself. There are not many films that portray childhood and coming of age for women well, especially as films by male directors often corrupt the innocence of this stage of life with the male gaze. Lady Bird is a truthful and honest depiction of a girl growing up on “the wrong side of the tracks”. 

Gerwig has said that she doesn’t know any woman who doesn’t have the most beautiful yet complicated relationship with their mother. This is true for Lady Bird, who has one of the most stubbornly relatable relationships with her mother that I have ever seen in film. They love each other deeply, but neither can articulate it. Marion (Laurie Metcalf), Lady Bird’s mother, feels unable to speak to Lady Bird when she hears that she is leaving to study in New York. The thought of not seeing her baby anymore, of no longer being needed in her daughter’s life, leaves her utterly powerless, yet this is the time when Lady Bird needs her more than ever.

Lady Bird puts a strain on her relationship with her mother by seeking the hedonism associated with California. A quote by Joan Didion pre-empts the film: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” To Lady Bird, Sacramento is boring. There is no excitement for a young girl curious about what the world has to offer. She desires more than what her parents have, which drives a wedge between herself and her mother. 

Every parent wishes their child to be satisfied and happy, and Lady Bird doesn’t realise how she hurts her parents when she tells people she lives on the wrong side of the tracks. She appears ungrateful in the eyes of her parents, but it seems as though her mother is more hurt because she can remember the hopes and dreams she had when she was young.

While being an interesting and charismatic character, it is clear Lady Bird doesn’t have a lot going for her in terms of her academic work. Her mother even says at the beginning: “You know with your work ethic just go to city college and then to jail and then back to city college and then maybe you’d learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do everything…” and before she can say “for you”, Lady Bird has already opened the door and jumped out of the car. Fantastic.

Before this argument, they seem to be having a beautiful morning. They finish listening to an audio of The Grapes of Wrath, a story about real oppression, with a message that we need to help each other in order to survive; we need people, we are not alone in this world. Marion gives Lady Bird a lot of attention – she isn’t neglected she just feels disliked. When trying on a dress for prom Lady Bird and her mother have the following exchange:

Lady Bird:  I just, I wish that you liked me.

Marion: Of course I love you

Ladybird: But do you like me?

Marion: I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.

Lady Bird: What if this is the best version.

Still a child, Lady Bird is desperate for her mother’s approval. Marion’s voice is thick with emotion when she tells Lady Bird she loves her, but the stubbornness that they both have prevents her from saying that she likes her, for she dislikes the person that Lady Bird is right now and cannot support her.

The film holds the feeling of a memory. The muted colours and vintage evocations emulate the feeling of nostalgia. It’s a love letter to mothers and daughters. At the beginning of the film, they are shown lying on a bed in a motel room. They are facing each other but their eyes are closed; they are close but not connected, failing to understand each other at this point in their lives. Whenever they talk, they argue, both scared of the changes to come. 

At the end of the film, after all of Lady Bird’s new experiences, she phones home from New York. She leaves her a message telling her mother that she is thankful and that she loves her. When she begins the message, she says: “Hi, Mom and Dad. It’s me. Christine. It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one.” She continues to tell her mother how she felt emotional the first time she drove in Sacramento, and she romanticises the familiarity of her home, something she was only able to appreciate when she left it. We see scenes of Christine and her mother driving in the same way, looking around, happy and thoughtful.

The film ends with Christine hanging up the phone, thanking her mother and looking to the left with her eyes open, a throwback to the first scene, which conveys that she is finally connected with her mother; she understands her now. Her journey is about understanding the people around her, learning not to be so self-centred, and listening to her loved ones. This is one of my favourite films, and I hope it will stay with me throughout my life.

Image: Saoirse Ronan at the Mary Queen of Scots premiere (cropped)” by Scottish Government is licensed under CC BY 2.0.