You won’t find them on any Mother’s Day cards but the dialogue in Lady Bird has enough wisdom to become bestsellers. The constant conflict taking place between a mother struggling to make ends meet for her family and her teenage daughter who wants to be three thousand miles away from her mother isn’t exactly matriarchal sentiment fit for a holiday. They trade barbs passive aggressively, opting at times to not be straightforward with one another; the more direct anger one sends the other way gets volleyed right back in a seemingly endless match. The silences, however, are devastating.
“I wish you liked me,” Lady Bird says to her mother Marion.
“Of course I love you,” Marion responds.
“But do you like me?”
“I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.”
“What if this is the best version?”
Every coming-of-age film you’ve seen deals with parents – either their overbearing presence or lack thereof, how the kids – mostly male – are fundamentally different from them. But A24’s Lady Bird gives us a female protagonist whose personality practically mirrors that of her mother’s: fiercely loving and strong-willed. They fight but never sell the other short to those outside the family. “She’s not crazy,” Lady Bird tells an ex-boyfriend of her mother. “She has a big heart.” They have a level of understanding for one another but want to understand more. They want to find agreeable ground on which to meet, but neither is ready to move an inch. Strong will comes with a territory. Marion searches for the right words to open up to Lady Bird but “Well, you couldn’t get into those schools anyway” wouldn’t work as text for a Hallmark graduation card either. It’s the gender inverse of an “‘attaboy” and Lady Bird makes it so refreshing.
Wrier/director Greta Gerwig’s treatise on growing up in an immediate post-9/11 Sacramento stars Saoirse (SEAR-SHA; one of those tricky Irish names) Ronan as Christine McPherson (not tricky), who gives herself the name “Lady Bird.” “I gave it to myself,” she says. “It’s given to me by me.” She’s a senior at a Catholic high school, desperate for an exodus from “soul-killing” Sacramento to an east coast school “where culture is.” Only her mother Marion (played to a tee by Laurie Metcalf) can’t afford out-of-state tuition and with terrorist threats still looming she aims to keep Lady Bird safely in California; Lady Bird’s father Larry (played heartbreakingly soft by Tracey Letts) has lost his job so Marion stretches herself thin with extra nursing shifts to keep the family afloat.
Lady Bird is artistically inclined without being artistic and her grades are on the border of mediocre and acceptable. She’s quick to dismiss her guidance counselors’ claims of her academic limitations. “Math isn’t something you’re terribly strong in,” says Sister Sarah Joan. “That we know of yet,” responds Lady Bird with confidence. She has designs to attend an east coast college, but she can’t let her mother know without catching hell for it. She experiences the growing pains of high school: friends (Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s BFF Julie) burgeoning sexuality, college applications, and boyfriends (Lucas Hedges as the confused Danny and Timothee Chalamant as the poser extraordinaire Kyle; “that’s hella tight.”) And her posters for class president are second to none.
Anyone who was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school will immediately identify with Lady Bird’s exploits. Droning through the responsorial psalms during morning mass, skirt checks for the desirable length, test papers being handed back face down, eating non-consecrated communion wafers, and an instinctual desire to not heed any teachings of the Catholic Church. The experience is simultaneously exclusive to Catholics yet relatable to all who dealt with awkward transitioning from high school to college. Though primarily set in Sacramento, flashes of the outside world appear on the McPherson’s TV with Matt Lauer reporting the Iraq War. The real world is closing in on Lady Bird who is desperate to meet it halfway.
There are three stars in Lady Bird, unequivocally outshining all others: Gerwig, Ronan, and Metcalf. If you’ve ever argued with a parent, the usual beats of the argument will be familiar but for those daughters and mothers aching for commonality it bruises the heart. These three woman bring it home and then some with these characters. Gerwig, having grown up in Sacramento, admits that Lady Bird is not a semi-autobiographical version of her, but more of an idealized version of how she wish she was in high school. Who among us doesn’t have that person living and breathing inside their own head?
Gerwig has original authorship of Lady Bird and Marion but Ronan and Metcalf have true ownership. Ronan’s turn as an angst-ridden high school girl with an authentic rebel streak is even more impressive considering Ronan evokes a wholesome, quiet Irish persona in real life. She miles away from Brooklyn here. If you walk into Lady Bird without knowing anyone, you would never guess she wasn’t American. Metcalf essentially wears the skin of an overworked mother of a difficult teenage daughter. Her and Ronan have a terrific back-and-forth throughout the film that plays naturally. Metcalf’s Marion shows anger, frustration, grief, joy, and tenderness. Her face is a roadmap of emotions. You watch these characters argue but never feel once that one is right and one is wrong; such is life growing more empathetic. Their big, bruised hearts burst when they collide, pumping genuine love all through the veins that is Lady Bird.
Though she has Lady Bird insist she hates California and has had her fill of Sacramento, Gerwig’s love for her hometown shines through. Much like her relationship with her mother, Lady Bird has complex emotions toward Sacramento. “I want to live through something,” she says in the film’s opening scene, feeling as though the world spins outside of central California where things merely exist. Since the film takes place in the 2002-2003 school year, much change was brought about by 9/11 and Lady Bird wanted to experience it. She doesn’t even consider her feelings toward Sacramento to be love until Sister Sarah Joan brings presents it differently:
“You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care,” she tells Lady Bird.
“Sure, I guess I pay attention.”
“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”
This added layer by Gerwig gives us a palpable sense of place and time, further authenticating the tension between mother and daughter – a mother who wants her daughter to stay and daughter who wants to leave her mother. They argue with one another because they feel great love. When an upset Marion stops speaking, Lady Bird, through tears, begs her to talk, fearing her devastating silence signifies no love anymore. When Lady Bird drives around Sacramento for the first time as a licensed driver, she pays closer attention to it – she discovers a connection she shares with her mother who enjoys the same drive. She calls her parents from college, where she introduces herself as Christine once more, feeling the separation that can easily mask as a lack of attention, to thank her parents – to thank her mother. Sacramento is Gerwig’s personal forefront of this universal struggle and how we overcome it with age. It’s ugly and full of tears but it’s growing up. You’re never too old for it.
Why you should see this movie: With an exciting wave of more female-driven stories in Hollywood, Lady Bird is a landmark achievement in original storytelling. As a beneficiary of the patriarchal system, I can honestly say it’s among the best coming-of-age movies you’ll ever hope to see, male or female. It’s written, directed, and acted to near perfection. It’s digestible yet enormously enlightened; you’ll be able to watch this at 50 and still learn something. Every character has a lasting line that gives you thoughtful pause. Greta Gerwig writes with tremendous heart and humor and will be a name to look out for going forward. Saoirse Ronan delivers again, proving to be among the best actresses today. Laurie Metcalf is your concerned, difficult mother whipping you into shape for the real world. The Catholic high school hijinks are frighteningly accurate and always good for laugh.
As for the Mother’s Day cards, I suppose we can say there’s nothing Lady Bird can offer in the arena of celebrating strong mothers. But Christine McPherson, empathetic and still yearning for culture, would suffix that assumption with a sage “. . . that we know of yet.”