LADY BIRD: Mothers, Daughters, Making The Personal Universal

Spoilers for Lady Bird follow.

I know my mother loved me. I know it on an intellectual level, anyway. After all, she worked two jobs to support me and my brother, and she insisted that I go to a Catholic high school for my safety and to improve my future prospects. She put in a lot of work, sacrificed a lot, to get me through childhood.

But I don’t know, on an emotional level, that my mother loved me. She never showed me love, and she only ever seemed disappointed, let down, put out by me. I know this in a real way, know that it isn’t just a figment of my angsty adolescent imagination because it kept going later in life. When I told her an interview I had done with director Paul Greengrass was in the United 93 script book she asked why I wasn’t just writing books myself. A few years later, when I had achieved the most success I would achieve, she told my father, her ex-husband, that she thought I had squandered my writing talent by not becoming a novelist, by not being a serious writer.

Here’s hoping Greta Gerwig and her mother have come to a better understanding. Lady Bird, Gerwig’s feature directing debut, presents a mother/daughter relationship that was warmly familiar to me in all its antagonism and bitterness. The movie seems to be pretty autobiographical, as it’s about a character who, on paper, looks a lot like Gerwig. Like the actress turned writer/director, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is a Sacramento native whose mother works in the medical field, who goes to an all-girls Catholic high school at the turn of the century, and who dreams of going to New York to follow her dreams that may include musical theater.

But more than the biographical details, there’s an emotional specificity to Lady Bird that makes it feel autobiographical. This isn’t a movie that feels imagined but that feels lived, earned, experienced. Even if nothing we see on screen happened to Gerwig, every moment of this movie is absolutely, entirely true. It’s true in a way that facts never can be, because facts only tell you part of the story.

The paradox at the heart of great personal storytelling is that the more specific you are, the more you drill down into the things that are unique to your experience, the more universal it all becomes. I grew up three thousand miles away, went to high school a decade earlier than Gerwig, was born a man and enjoyed all the privileges and pitfalls that come with that, but I still found Lady Bird to be more relatable a character than any other in theaters this year. I’m willing to bet you will as well, no matter where you were born or what your circumstances or even what your relationship to your mother is. That’s because Gerwig, in telling a story very much about herself, got to the core human things that we all share.

This paradox is something I see in recovery all the time, and it’s one of my favorite things. I love when someone who looks nothing like me shares a story that is totally different from mine, but that still allows me to recognize myself in there. We’re told to look for the similarities, not the differences, and in great personal storytelling that’s easy. In fact it’s hard to not see the similarities; it’s one of the reasons people struggle with their relationship to Woody Allen’s work, because we’ve all seen ourselves in his films. I’m not sure it’s possible to watch Annie Hall and feel distant from those characters.

So it is with Lady Bird. The film is mostly plotless, featuring a loose story that stretches across Lady Bird’s final year of high school. What’s most important is the emotional journey that Lady Bird goes on, one that is both subtle and profound. She ends the film far away from where she started it – both physically and emotionally – and yet closer to it than ever. The journey for her is about love – how to give it, how to accept, what it means, what it looks like – and the ways that manifests in her relationship with her mother.

Saoirse Ronan is Lady Bird (born Christine, but Lady Bird is her given name, as in she gave it to herself), and the fragile fierceness she brings to the role is extraordinary. Ronan’s Lady Bird is a character who has the strength to hurl herself from a moving car, who will steal a grade book, who will pull off ballsy pranks and speak snarky truth to power, but who will shatter emotionally at the slightest touch. Those two aspects aren’t paradoxical but are totally connected, and the movie gently examines how her glasslike emotional state informs her outbursts and her anger.

Ronan is in every frame of this movie, and there’s still not enough of her. The way she can dance between states – between knowing she is desirable and feeling rejected, between being vulnerable and being cruel, between being loving and being totally self-seeking – is breathtaking. It’s the best kind of acting, the kind that is so interior that a slumped shoulder or an inflection on a neutral line gives us worlds of meaning and miles of depth. And she does it with ease, like she’s not acting at all, like none of these moments are calculated.

Opposite her is Laurie Metcalf as her mother Marion, giving one of those performances that’s surprising in only the way an actor whose work you’ve known for thirty years can surprise you. Metcalf, who most of us know from Roseanne or Toy Story or modern sitcoms like Big Bang Theory, doesn’t bring anything new to the mom role, per se, but rather brings her essential Laurie Metcalf-ness to bear in a novel way. She’s not playing against type – I recognize a lot of her Jackie Harris role in here – but rather she’s embodying that type in a new way.

Metcalf has a tricky part to play, in that she has to be a pain in the ass, maybe even bitchy, mom… but never so much so that we can’t see where she’s coming from. The script helps with that early on, having her reveal her mother was an abusive alcoholic, but the movie doesn’t rub our faces in Marion’s trauma. Rather it gives us small glimpses of her at work, glimpses that show the contradictions at the center of Marion. As a psychiatric nurse she’s capable of love and kindness, yet she’s unable to bring those things home to Lady Bird.

Why? Why can’t Marion be as kind to her as she is to a patient? By the end of the movie it becomes clear that Marion’s constant disappointment isn’t aimed at Lady Bird, but at herself. Mother and daughter are so alike that they see their own selves reflected back at them – and they don’t always like what they see.

More than that, Marion represents one angle of the film’s theme. That theme gets spoken aloud when Lady Bird is dealing with a nun who is giving her a disciplinary action, and the nun muses that love and attention are, on some level, the same thing. Attention is vital to Lady Bird – she seeks it all the time, looking to be the center of it whenever possible, jumping from friend group to friend group in attempts to get the right attention. For Marion it’s likely the same, but based on her history with an abusive alcoholic mom she doesn’t understand how to give attention properly. It comes from her as nitpicking, error correcting, disappointment.

The problem, of course, is that this negative attention conditions Lady Bird in how she in turn understands and seeks love. She finds it in boys who are unavailable or who are grotestquely uninterested or jerky. She finds it by acting up and being difficult. She has a hard time finding it in her uncool, overweight best friend, or by focusing on the stuff she’s good at.

The damaged mother damages her daughter, slowly and imperceptibly, but not maliciously. Gerwig doesn’t let Marion off the hook, although she does find a way to bring mother and daughter together without creating a sentimental scene. In the end Lady Bird has the opportunity to see from her mother’s perspective, and that gives her a new view on their relationship. Whether it can heal the wounds that have been inflicted on her is another story, and while Gerwig ends the film on an uplifting note, she’s careful to not draw too many conclusions about where Lady Bird goes next.

All of this plays out subtly, often without characters drawing attention to what they’re feeling. The big emotional moments often get undercut by small comedic ones; the biggest emotional outbursts are played as jokes. Gerwig finds the truth in the moments between, the small conversations while trying on dresses or in reading letters that were unsent. The film’s form follows – this isn’t a flashy movie, or one that grabs you visually. Gerwig knows what she’s doing – her camera is usually in the exact right place, she knows how to play with space, and the editing is excellent – but the style is Modern Indie Aesthetic, trying to be ‘naturalistic’ and not draw a ton of attention to itself.

This adds to the feeling that Lady Bird is, in the best way possible, minor. It’s a small story and it’s told in small strokes. This isn’t the usual awards season bait, with big histrionics or sweeping epic cinematography. This is intimate and honest, and the filmmaking tries to be as intimate and honest – and unobtrusive – as possible.

When I first saw her in LOL and Hannah Takes The Stairs I thought that Greta Gerwig couldn’t quite act. She was a magnetic presence on screen, a true star from her first shot, but there was a flatness to her I find too many indie filmmakers confuse with realism. I don’t know what it is about affectless mumbling that so enraptured a generation of directors, but it never felt right to me.

Over the years, though, we have had the pleasure and privilege of seeing Gerwig grow as a performer, and to grow in ways that did not discredit her earliest work but that, for me, contextualized it. Now it’s exciting to see her grow into this new dimension as writer/director, and this will, I believe, continue to recontextualize her past work. What’s more, I suspect it will recontextualize her as an artist altogether; Lady Bird doesn’t feel like the first feature of an actor, it feels like the first feature of a filmmaker. It’s almost like the previous decade of work was about getting Gerwig to this spot where she could be what she truly is, a writer/director.

I respect the restraint it took to not put herself somewhere in this movie, but I do hope that in the future she follows in the footsteps of other great actor/writer/directors like Woody Allen and Warren Beatty and Sarah Polley and gives herself a role. I want to see Gerwig bringing all of her talents to bear on future films. But whatever she does on her next movie, I’ll be there if she’s as committed to honesty and humanity as she is in Lady Bird.

Lady Bird never exactly reconnects with her mother. It’s an important choice that Gerwig makes – Lady Bird reads letters from her mom that were never sent, and her response is to leave a voicemail message the morning after she gets her first real taste of independent adult life. The two characters have a brusque and hurtful goodbye and never interact again in the film. It’s possible that when Lady Bird comes home for Christmas the old cycle will begin again – hell, it’s likely. But what Gerwig gives her characters is not a happy ending but a moment of grace, and that’s all we ever really get.

I haven’t spoken to my mother in years, and I’m not sure when or if I will ever talk to her again. Sometimes I think about whether or not I will have to attend her funeral, whether just skipping it will be inexcusably performative of me. Lady Bird and I both share a flair for the dramatic and a need to be the center of attention. Both of us got our broken ideas of what it means to be loved from broken mothers who tried to love us in their way, but couldn’t give us what we needed.

I once found my mother’s old diaries from when she was a teen. I was a teen myself when I found them, and they were disorienting to me. I was at that age where I couldn’t imagine my mom as a young person, as a young woman before her divorce broke her in a fundamental way. It wasn’t until I was older, and when our relationship had collapsed completely, that I really connected to the humanity in those pages, to the pain and angst she had spilled out in the mid 1960s. Her own mother was abusive, and maybe an alcoholic (it’s the Irish side of the family, so odds are good. That grandmother was out of the picture before I achieved sentience). A lot of what she wrote, a lot of what she experienced, I saw reflected in what happens to Lady Bird in this movie. And I saw my own experience reflected in Lady Bird as well.

That’s the good stuff, right there. Greta Gerwig, making a movie informed by her own adolescence and her own struggle to understand and cope with her mother, made a movie that showed me not just my relationship with my mom, but my mom herself as both mother and daughter. And that’s why I love the way the movie ends, not with a sugar sweet hug and tears, but with two characters separated in every way still making an effort to understand one another… and be understood by one another.

I doubt Lady Bird is the kind of movie that will draw my mom into theaters, but I hope that it does. I hope that she gets a chance to see herself on screen, and her mother. I hope that she gets a chance to see me on screen, and our relationship. I hope it can bring her the kind of insight and love it brought me.