When I came out of the cinema after seeing Lady Bird, I still had tears running down my face, struggling to readjust to the real world. “I bet my sister would have had a very different experience watching that film”, my close male friend said to me as I stumbled into the sunshine outside, trying to rub the mascara smudges away from under my eyes.
There’s something incredibly powerful about seeing yourself reflected on screen or in a book, feeling like someone has recognised you and validated your experience. And it’s an understatement to say that my mother and I have had a ‘difficult’ relationship that started when I hit puberty and saw us scream, cry and yell our way into my 20s. Lady Bird feels painfully familiar; we all had an unfortunate crush in high school, all dreamed of escaping our parents, all had a heated argument with our mother in a changing room, and all made her cry at least once in our lives.
Lady Bird feels undeniably real, particularly in comparison to the plethora of teen films gracing our screens — think 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, Paper Towns or, most recently, Edge of Seventeen. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) has acne, mismatched home-dyed hair, an overweight best friend and a house on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. Lady Bird’s realism might partly be due to the fact that the film is semi-autobiographical; director and writer Greta Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, attended a Catholic school and ultimately moved to New York for college.
We identify with Lady Bird because we feel like we could be her. In Gerwig’s world you don’t need to be a princess, a cool and edgy outsider, or a heroine who undergoes a makeover to be worthy of having a voice. In fact, Gerwig parodies many of these adolescent stereotypes; the ‘cool’ girl is revealed to have small-town ambitions of being a stay-at-home mum, while Timothée Chalamet’s ‘bad boy’, wannabe Marxist, anti-establishment character Kyle is hilariously undercut, declaring he’s “trying as much as possible not to participate in our economy”, while attending private school and living with his decidedly upper-middle-class family.
Lady Bird’s life doesn’t happen in a political vacuum; although the film is a classic coming-of-age story, it subtly but powerfully confronts the harsh reality of early 21st century suburban America. Underscored by post 9/11 security concerns and a growing class divide and unemployment rate, the film asks us to see past Lady Bird’s innocence and notice the external forces working upon her family and larger society.
Part of adolescence is negotiating the tricky terrain between understanding where you’ve come from while simultaneously trying to forge your own identity. Insisting on being called by her ‘given name’, ‘Lady Bird’, because it was “given to me, by me”, Lady Bird (otherwise known as Christine) rejects the definitions that Marion (her mother, portrayed by Jessie Metcalf), tries to impose upon her. Lady Bird — at least according to her teacher, Sister Sarah Joan — has a “performative streak”. In other words, she performs a ‘self’ to gain some form of control over her own identity. Yet her quest to be 100 per cent authentically herself constantly bucks up against the false performance she gives. In order to become her ‘true’ self, Lady Bird must lie about her family and her neighbourhood, abandon her real best friend and move to where ‘culture’ is, despite not being particularly academic or knowing anything about the East Coast.
Lady Bird (like most daughters) can’t see the sacrifices her mother makes for her, despite the fact that Marion works double time to keep the family afloat. Even though Marion doesn’t want Lady Bird spending Thanksgiving with Danny (Lady Bird’s boyfriend) and his rich family, she stays up late fixing her daughter’s dress. The film’s most heartbreaking, and powerful, scene comes as Marion drops Lady Bird off at the airport, refusing to get out of the car. The camera focuses on Marion’s face as she drives away, unable to contain the grief of letting go of her only daughter, and the heartbreaking pain of being unable to say goodbye. Metcalf’s performance is electric, especially when she turns around and runs back into the airport, only to find she’s too late, and her daughter has gone. I couldn’t help but of think of my own mother, fighting back tears the day she dropped me off at college, as I ungraciously pushed her out of my room in an attempt to grow up and prove I didn’t need my parents anymore.
Every time my mother and I fought I would proudly swear that I would never become her. But the older I get, the more I know it’s inevitable; all daughters, no matter how much they try to fight it, come to resemble their mothers in some way. But Lady Bird reminds us that teenagers need the opportunity to reach outside their world, to move away from home in order to understand how much they miss it, and to learn a lesson I learned all too quickly: that, in the words of Kyle, they’re “gonna have so much unspecial sex” in their lives.
When I was a teenager, I believed that everything I was feeling was the most important thing I would ever feel: that I would never get over the first boy I ‘loved’, that I would remember for time immemorial when we stayed up all night to see the sunrise, and that when my mother questioned me she just didn’t understand me, and never would. Marion, with her big heart, only wants Lady Bird to reach her potential: in her words, to be “the very best version of yourself you can be” — just as my mother justified every argument we had about staying out late, or sleeping over at a boy’s house, or having my own secrets, with the reasoning: “I’m just trying to protect you, because I love you so much.” Love runs deep in this film, but it will never be able to overcome the inevitable insecurities we feel as teenagers. We spend so much time searching for who we are and trying to understand where we’re going, all the while asking ourselves, just like Lady Bird: what if this is the best version of ourselves? Is being loved unconditionally enough if the people who love us the most don’t like who we are?
Lady Bird doesn’t answer these questions. Gerwig herself beautifully summed it up in her directions for the final scene, writing that, “It turns out that her [Lady Bird’s] life is just beginning.” The film’s ending is full of contradictions: Lady Bird rejects religion yet ultimately seeks solace in a Church; leaves Sacramento for East Coast ‘culture’ yet finds she cannot forget “all those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing”, and despite voyaging out on her own, finally acknowledges her given name as Christine: “It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one.” Yet for Lady Bird, just as for all of us, these contradictions are the things that make life messy and complicated, ultimately allowing us to grow and change.
It’s one thing to recognise yourself in a film, it’s another thing to feel seen, and Gerwig saw right through me. After I’d shoved my mother unceremoniously out the door, my first night in college was scary and lonely and I wished immediately I’d asked her to stay. It’s been a few years now since I moved out of home, but I still get that same pang of nostalgia when I walk down those streets I’ve known all my life — those streets that somehow feel both foreign and familiar. I still haven’t given up my habit of losing my temper at my mother and even though I’m no longer a teenager, I still struggle to say the things I really mean. Sometimes, I feel angry at my mother’s overarching interference, but I also know that she’s the most important person in my life.
Maybe Sister Sarah Joan is right when she asks, “Don’t you think they are the same? Love and attention?” Maybe growing up inevitably means understanding the sacrifices our mothers made for us, and recognising their sometimes overbearing ‘attention’ to who we are becoming as the ultimate gesture of love. Lady Bird shows us that while growing up means recognising ourselves as individuals who will never perfectly fit into the mould our families expect of us, we must simultaneously, and perhaps sometimes contradictorily, also acknowledge the ways in which mothers and daughters are irretrievably joined by history, love and attention.