In ‘Lady Bird,’ a Delicate Examination of the Complex Mother-Daughter Relationship

By spotlighting the friction between self and family, Greta Gerwig’s bittersweet coming-of-age story makes adolescent angst feel novel.

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By spotlighting the friction between self and family, Greta Gerwig’s bittersweet coming-of-age story makes adolescent angst feel novel.

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Saoirse Ronan plays Lady Bird, a high school senior struggling to find her identity without alienating her mom (Image via Vanity Fair)

Within the first ten minutes of “Lady Bird,” the film’s title character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, throws herself out of a moving car to get away from an argument with her mother about college. The act is symbolic of the ensuing struggle she wrestles with for the rest of the movie: how to leave a home you’ve grown tired of, even when it is a nagging, ever-present part of who you are.

The story follows the ups and downs of Lady Bird’s senior year, a coming-of-age period captured in so many high school classics. “Lady Bird” is already earning its place among them; the bittersweet story is currently the best-reviewed movie of all-time on Rotten Tomatoes and has earned $10 million at the box office in limited release. The film’s critical and monetary success can be traced back to the emotional resonance of its story. What cements “Lady Bird” as a classic teenage tale is its vivid depiction of Lady Bird’s faltering but earnest attempts to separate herself from her family, her hometown and her old self in pursuit of attaining independence and adulthood.

Lady Bird runs into many relationship pains during her senior year, going through two problematic boyfriends and a fight with her best friend. While these pairings are important to her character growth, no relationship is more anchoring in the film than that between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. Equal parts frustrating and loving, they are constantly at odds and constantly at each other’s throats about college, boyfriends, clothing and cleanliness.

Though their fights are quick and cutting, the tensions are strong because of the deep love at stake. The pair express an exasperation with each other that only comes from feeling misunderstood or unrecognized by the person you love the most. “You and your mother have such strong personalities,” Lady Bird’s dad tells her in response to their fighting, and it’s true; the similarities between mother and daughter are what Lady Bird sees and runs from as she rejects home and pursues college on the East Coast.

Her complicated feelings about her family propel her to further detach from her physical home in Sacramento. She says she lives “on the wrong side of the tracks,” much to her mother’s dismay, and already pretends she doesn’t live there. When a new friend asks about her house, she describes the blue-shuttered dream home her boyfriend’s grandmother owns instead of her own. Similar to her demand that she be called “Lady Bird” instead of her given name, the lie functions as a type of wishful thinking that deliberately rejects home and promises a better tomorrow.

But Lady Bird doesn’t just reject her house; she rejects the whole city of Sacramento, calling it the “Midwest of California” and saying that she wants to move away to big cities “where culture is.” Screenwriter and director Greta Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, and intended the film to be an exploration of the theme of home. “I had always wanted to make a movie that was basically about home—what does home mean?” she told Entertainment Weekly. “The way that it’s difficult to see it clearly when you’re there, and it’s not until you’re gone that you understand what it was.”

Though Lady Bird doesn’t realize her love for the city of Sacramento until the end of the film, her affinity for it is apparent in how carefully she observes its flaws. Sister Sarah Joan, a teacher at her Catholic high school, tells her so when her college essays describe the town in vivid detail. As with her mother, Lady Bird throws such passionate tantrums about the city because, no matter how strongly she hates it, it will always be a part of who she is.

Ultimately, Lady Bird’s attempts to reject her mother, her family and her home are all small ways of rejecting her “old” self so that she can grow into the person she aspires to be. Despite having such a strong personality, Lady Bird goes through many different iterations of herself during senior year. In the fall she’s dedicated to drama club and devoted to her innocent boyfriend, while in the spring she plays pranks on teachers and rebels with her “anarchist” crush. Through it all, actress Saoirse Ronan manages to ground Lady Bird’s staunch independence in a very real vulnerability.

One of the movie’s most poignant moments comes when Lady Bird is talking with her mother in a dressing room. “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be,” Marion says, as an explanation of why she is so hard on her daughter. “What if this is the best version?” Lady Bird responds. The question reveals Lady Bird’s acute fear that she may not grow into the person she wants to be, and that fear is the driving force of the film.

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“I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be,” Marion says. “What if this is the best version?” Lady Bird responds. (Image via Vox)

At one point or another, all adolescents have felt the weight of the future ahead of them and have lost their way trying to become someone new. Because it faces that universal dilemma head on, “Lady Bird” is one of the most honest coming-of-age stories to date. Viewers can see themselves and their own struggles in Lady Bird even though she is a character all her own.

The end of the film doesn’t disappoint in its reflection on the fruit of Lady Bird’s labors. After getting into an East Coast school, she moves away, finally free of the home she desperately wanted to leave, and then ends up in a hospital with alcohol poisoning. The ending finds Lady Bird calling home, reclaiming her birth name of Christine and telling her mom that she loves her. The movie concludes with her realization that, as Gerwig noted previously, it is only by leaving home that we truly understand the anchor and support it provides as we drift in a bigger unfamiliar world. Christine’s story is timeless, and a must-see for all young people trying to find their place in the bigger picture.

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