In Nancy Friday’s seminal book, My Mother My Self, she explores the conflictual feelings of anger, love and hate that daughters hold for their mother in their desire to escape becoming their mother. It’s a painful and complex journey captured so beautifully in Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird. It is a film handling many rites of passage, a teenager ending high school, a young woman experiencing boys, sex, friendships, but at its heart is a powerful portrayal of intimacy between mother and daughter as college signals a new beginning.
Christine, played by Saoirse Ronan, dreams of escape from the confines of suburban Sacramento and her Catholic girl’s school, for an East Coast arts education that is out of her reach. With her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) doing double shifts at a psych ward, her father out of work and battling depression, not to mention her low school grades, it is a leap of imagination summed up in her renaming herself Lady Bird. But with her mother up against her own life’s limitations, her reality check is harsh, “the way that you work, you’re not even worth state tuition”, she snaps. Gerwig captures the moment to moment inflections and triggers between Lady Bird and her mother, weeping together listening to the Grapes of Wrath, then turning on a dime as Ladybird jumps out of the car to escape her.
Griping and bickering can also turn to love as they trawl vintage shops, and her mother finds ‘the dress’. Though she tries to be kind, her mother’s experience of mothering by ‘an abusive alcoholic’ is not easy to overcome. “I want you to be the very best version of yourself you can possibly be”, says her mother. But the trials of boys, sex, school and friendship are finding Ladybird getting into trouble, lying and letting down her best friend. Her mother is hurt by her daughter’s shame of their circumstances as she begins to mix with the popular rich kids, and spends Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s family on the other side of the tracks. But breaking each other’s hearts is a thing mothers and daughters do in order to break free, and in order for a mother to let her daughter go. One moment adored, the next despised, Ladybird captures this love story with all the intensity of the real thing. What Gerwig creates is a self-determined young woman on screen who does the right thing, and is not a victim of the boys and their behavior, or of a lack of self-confidence. It is a compelling portrayal of what it is to be a daughter, a mother and a friend.