“I’m Not Like That, Right?”: On Watching Lady Bird with My Mom

by Genevieve Wagner


Growing-up, I’ve always hypothesised that my mother’s greatest fear in regards to our relationship was that we would someday stop talking. That I’d run away to a far-off college and never visit home, that I’d stop returning phone calls, emails, and text messages, or that I’d ignore her presence all together, let her be a person who I grew-up with but did not need in my adult life. This hypothesis is not backed by a lot of proof; we clash at times, on my clothing choices, curfew times, decisions about shaving my legs, or too frequent dents on my car. And communication isn’t my extended family’s strongest attribute; family members can go on month, year, decade-long silence streaks, often prompted by tiny quarrels or in-the- moment, selfish acts. I’ve always felt that my mom was afraid that a fight we had would spark our demise and that we’d never speak again. But as we have gotten older, as we’ve gone through more together, our relationship has strengthened; but I know that this fear is still a tremor in my mother’s amygdala.

Over break, my mom and I went to see the film Lady Bird. The film is written and directed by Greta Gerwig and stars Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan as a fiery, dynamic mother-daughter pair. Set in early-2000 Sacramento, the film explores the relationship between the two characters as Lady Bird McPherson, played by Ronan, navigates the excitement and confusion of her senior year of high school. She yearns to quit the West and retreat to a liberal arts college out East, a magical place where “writers live in the woods,” she postulates. While this dream looms heavy above her pink-haired head, financial, romantic, and friendship-spurred stress creeps in, manifesting her year as a time to decide how to be true to herself, her friends, and her family as she leaves the binds of her Catholic school-Californian existence and leaps into life as an adult.

When my mother and I saw the film together, I had just finished my first semester of college after graduating from a catholic all-girls high school, similar to the one the protagonist of Lady Bird goes to, so my mom thought it would be fitting to see this “mother-daughter” dramedy together. She must have made some deductions about the bluntness of the protagonist’s mother from the film’s trailer because during the ride to the theatre, my mother casually asked if I went to church in college, if I still believed in God, and whether or not I was going to marry a gentile. I was only slightly caught-off guard by these inquiries because like the protagonist's mother, my mother is also quite blunt. Yet, I was aware that my answers weren’t entirely what she’d hoped for. Thankfully, my mother values honesty, over perfection, but I was hoping that watching a mother and daughter fight on screen would soften the blow of my answers.

But like myself, and remotely every woman, Gerwig’s characters are far from perfection. The Gerwigian young woman is often flighty, passionate, and while sometimes intolerable, very lovable. In Frances Ha, Gerwig writes and plays her character as a young artist yearning to be loved and love while staying true to her love of ballet. In the 2007 mumblecore comedy, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Gerwig plays a character on a pursuit for love and professional success. In 20th Century Women, she plays a photographer struggling to understand men and adulthood. While these roles fulfill the over-used stereotype of the aimless 20-something in search of purpose, Gerwig plays them delicately and with depth. And when she writes them, as in Frances Ha and especially Lady Bird, she carves their past, relationships, and yearnings into their actions and identities as characters and women.

With Lady Bird, Gerwig proves that she can do the same for older female characters. Metcalf, who plays Marion McPherson, is strong, strict, and so full of love yet unable to properly express it. Her passive aggressive remarks and jabs at her daughter’s imperfections each snag a tear in the intricate tapestry of their relationship, until her presence is just another irksome element that makes Lady Bird’s existence in Sacramento so intolerable. Yet, Marion is not painted as a monstrous force keeping Lady Bird from reaching her full potential and achieving her dreams. She is her mother, more harsh than most, yet excelling in her duty to challenge and push her daughter to develop her independence and self-direction. Fights break out, a fissure forms, yet at the end of Lady Bird’s senior year, at the beginning of her collegiate career, the relationship between mother and daughter is strong, having weathered the blows that mushroom when two intense, difficult, strong women clash.

The fire that Metcalf and Ronan create together has embers of truth and sadness, a heat that every mother/mother-figure and daughter has felt, especially during young adulthood. Gerwig paints them with a supreme level of depth and life, creating characters that we see ourselves and our mothers in. During a time when we need strong female characters in film, watching flawed, bold characters battle the unknowns of life, is inspiring and uplifting for women and people of all ages.

After watching Lady Bird with my mother, I felt an unspoken air of understanding surface between us, a faint calming feeling, like the way the air feels clean and smells of dirt after a rainstorm. She slipped more blunt questions into the stream of silence and reflection that filled- up the 20-minute space between the theatre and home; I felt some of the fissures between us mend. We saw one another and ourselves in that 90-minute filmic litany and we’d forever carry the understanding that our imperfect, light-giving selves are worth so much more than any “perfect,” dimmed, flattened version. Lady Bird McPherson and Marion McPherson are beams of light and strength in a hardened world, role-models for the 21st century daughter, mother, and woman.

Genevieve Wagner is host to Afternoon Tea with G on AROUSE Wednesdays from 12p-1p.