When I saw Lady Bird last year, I knew it would make me cry. Partly because it was written and directed by a woman: Greta Gerwig. Partly because I cry at most movies, but mostly because it’s a story about a mother and a daughter.
Lady Bird is a coming-of-age story, with the titular character (Saoirse Ronan) butting heads with her mother, Marion, about college, her name, what she wears, etc. Lady Bird has carefully crafted a persona around herself as a confident and self-assured young woman who knows what she wants. Even her name, given to her by her, represents a desire for independence and defiance against convention.
She wants to rebel, yet desperately longs for her mother to like her. She gives off an aura of not caring if people like her, but craves the approval of the rich and popular girl at their Catholic high school. She tries too hard to get a part in her school’s musical, but shrugs the whole thing off as silly when her best friend gets the lead instead. For all of Lady Bird’s dreams and desires, her vulnerabilities shine through in a way that is heart-wrenchingly relatable – that need to be validated, that ache for affirmation.
Girlhood is messy and often unkind, and Lady Bird’s story represents a piece of my own adolescence and young adulthood that I didn’t even know existed: my ever-present desire for an audience and to hear approval of what I write, say, or do. Lady Bird and I both hide our vulnerabilities by displaying them in plain sight – by incorporating them into a carefully curated façade of nonchalance – when we really feel like our inner chaos is ready to spill out of every part of us.
Her mother, in an exquisite performance by Laurie Metcalf, is caught between wanting to be right and wanting to be kind. When Lady Bird goes behind her back and applies to East Coast colleges, far away from her hometown of Sacramento and not within the range of the family’s bank account, Marion doesn’t know how to react – so she shuts down. She ignores Lady Bird from the celebratory high school graduation dinner all the way to the moment that her daughter gets ready to step on the plane to New York. In a last ditch attempt for reconciliation, she asks her mother if she’ll come into the airport to say goodbye.
When Marion says no, my heart – which was already cracked – broke. I’m really lucky; lucky to have a relationship with my own mother that surpasses all expectations. We like each other. I would do anything for her. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half ago and our worlds shattered, we did what we do best: we talked about it. How was it going to change things? How were we going to deal with it? We were the fortunate ones; a few months of radiation was enough to put our worries aside for a while. But Lady Bird and Marion had a relationship that I wanted to stitch back together.
The love Marion has for Lady Bird is an incredible enigma. Between the hurt written on Marion’s face as Lady Bird makes comments about living on the “wrong side of the tracks” to the way she holds her daughter while she cries after losing her virginity, it is clear that the relationship presented onscreen goes far deeper than a mother and her daughter butting heads. When Marion drives back to the airport (an act that the viewers see, but Lady Bird herself doesn’t) and rushes inside only to see that Lady Bird has already gotten on the plane, it solidifies what we already know: Marion loves her daughter so deeply that she doesn’t even know how to articulate it. Motherhood is pushed so forcefully on so many women, and we often incorrectly assume that it’s easy. But what about when there’s so much love there that it feels impossible to express it in a way that adequately captures its depth?
More than that, though, coming-of-age is slapdash and messy. It’s hard to be a girl and navigate all the intricacies of girlhood and understanding who you are and what you’re going to become. Seeing my own yearning displayed onscreen helped me grasp that my own mom was learning how to understand my high school coming-of-age, too. We were fumbling for answers just like Lady Bird and Marion, only we managed to do so in a slightly less cinematic way. But even though we’re friends, we’re not so different from the relationship we watched onscreen.
Relationships between mothers and daughters are complex. I don’t pretend to know anything about them, except for mine. There aren’t words for how grateful I am for what I have with my mom. We share our looks, a love for creme brûlée, and a desire to dare greatly. She has taught me when to use “fewer than” and when to use “less than” when editing for grammar, how to drive a car on the highway, how to take chances, and most importantly, what unconditional love looks like. I think she and Marion have the same unconditional love; perhaps Marion is just still learning how to display it.
The film ends with Lady Bird calling her parents and referring to herself as Christine, her given name. Over the answering machine, she tells her dad that the message is mostly for her mother. She tells her that she loves her and thanks her.
So, thanks, Greta. Thanks for the story.
And thank you, Mom. For everything.