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Why Lady Bird is Every Girl and Her Mother

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When I walked into the movie theater with my mother, I was surprised by how many mother-daughter pairs were simultaneously inching both away and towards one another. We were all seeing Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s heralded masterpiece starring the brilliantly theatrical Saoirse Ronan, and the ever-captivating Laurie Metcalf. It made me wonder, maybe I shouldn’t have brought my mother. After all, we’d all read that the film was a moving, raw take on both being, and mothering, a teenager. Maybe this would hit too close to home? Or maybe it wouldn’t, and that might be worse?
    “Maybe we shouldn’t sit next to each other?” I suggested quietly.
    “Don’t be silly. We’re here together!” My mother retorted with gusto and fire.
    “If you’re sure.”
Lady Bird tells the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a free-spirited Sacramento high school student in 2002. Burdened by her mother‘s constant attention, Lady Bird wants to get the heck out of dodge, and attend college far from the confines of the UC school system. Her mother Marion, a nurse at a local psych hospital, sees things differently, and therein lies one of Lady Bird’s central conflicts: a miscommunication between two human beings who love each other deeply, but simply cannot express it adequately.
As the film progressed, I heard both laughter and sniffling in the theater. It was a film for all emotions, one of the very best types, and it came as no surprise that Rotten Tomatoes, the new arbiter of filmic taste, had praised it so. I believe this profound audience connection came down to the universality of Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, and Marion’s relationship with her daughter. (Occasionally, these feel like two, entirely different relationships.)
Gerwig captures this dynamic beautifully during a scene in which Lady Bird and Marion go prom dress shopping. A rite of passage for the annals in many young women’s lives, prom dress shopping seems so much more important than it actually is. Yet, in the moment, it really can mean everything. As Lady Bird says, “People can be sad about different things.”
Lady Bird walks out of the dressing room, decked out in a frilly, polka-dotted pink dress, and smiles at herself in the mirror. Marion looks at her and responds, “Isn’t it a little too pink?” This moment feels like a sucker punch to the gut. As loving as one’s mother may be, as complimentary and kind, we’ve all been here: Wanting our mother to approve, and experiencing the opposite instead. It’s soul-crushing for Lady Bird, regardless of the fact that it’s merely about a dress.
At the same time, after facing rejection from a total tool of a boy, Lady Bird finds solace in the comfort of her mother‘s embrace and resilience. What usually feels, to Lady Bird, like such an annoying, frustrating quality of Marion’s, her persistence, provides Lady Bird with the tools to move on. When the moment mattered, when Lady Bird needed her mother, Marion was there, offering sympathy and kindness.
Sitting just inches from my mother, I couldn’t help but see my own relationship with her in the characters’s emotionally fraught dynamic. Sure, we get along wonderfully now, but when I was younger, I was equally as stubborn and dramatic as Lady Bird. While I’m grateful to say that my mother was never as harsh as Lady Bird’s, between the two of us, there’s love, there’s pain, there’s excessive hovering and part-time smothering. We are so much, too much, together, and it will still never be enough.
It’s immensely difficult to describe what being a daughter is like, and I can’t fathom how one would describe being a mother, having never been one. It’s a gift and a blessing, but it’s a challenge, and in that way, the relationship dynamic is never simple. Lady Bird captures this so effectively, and while it doesn’t overtly seems like a love letter to the mother-daughter relationship, it can feel slightly like one. Given this, my favorite line is Lady Bird’s fervent, jolting response to a friend who suggests that her mother is too hard on her. Lady Bird says, “Well, she loves me a lot.”
Although I didn’t see myself in every ounce of the film, as my life is so very different from Lady Bird’s, I saw enough. The exposed, humanness of Lady Bird and Marion’s relationship, expertly written by Gerwig and performed with nuance and sensitivity by the actors, reminded me of reality. It was real life cast upon a widescreen, with perfect lighting and uncovered cheek acne. Lady Bird is every girl and her mother, if not exactly, at least a little.
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