There is a long cinematic history dealing with complicated mother-daughter relationships. As moviegoers, we are used to a relatively happy ending. Even if the relationship is codependent or toxic, by the end, there is some understanding by the mother. Then there is the 2017 Greta Gerwig coming of age film Lady Bird. As director and writer, Gerwig does an excellent job giving the audience a snapshot of a toxic relationship between mother and daughter. Unlike other films, Gerwig doesn’t end the film with an equal revelation.
The film begins with Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) sharing a bed with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Sharing a bed with her mother keeps her from maturing beyond childhood. It keeps her mother in control by literally keeping Lady Bird next to her. This scene is brief, and later in the film, Lady Bird has her room. Despite being an easily forgettable scene, it sets the bar for the rest of the film. Sharing a bed with her mother, while being a senior in high school, can be tied to her bad decisions later in the film. She struggles with breaking free while maintaining a relationship, despite the feeling not seemingly to be mutual.
Like myself, Lady Bird is a total daddy’s girl. Her father is a great dad to her and understanding to her growing pains. Behind her mother’s back, she asks her dad for help to file out financial aid paperwork. He keeps his word and gives her the paperwork that she can send in at the last minute. Even though Lady Bird is wait-listed, her dad celebrates with her with a bag of Doritos that they keep a secret from the mother. For her birthday, he comes into her room with a cupcake for her and jokes he can’t divorce her mother because neither could afford to. He explains to his daughter that her mother is frustrated because she doesn’t know how to help her. He gets her a cell phone, pays for the east coast school and walks her inside the airport. In the ultimate “good dad” action, he puts papers inside Lady Bird’s suitcase of all the letters her mother attempted to write to her. Without this action, Lady Bird’s revelation at the end of the film probably wouldn’t have happened.
Lady Bird and her mother go to look at colleges and cry together while listening to The Grapes Of Wrath on tape. This moment between them is short-lived because Lady Bird wants to listen to music, and Marion wants to sit in silence and appreciate the book they just completed. It is such a ridiculous fight, and the mother seems to always go for the jugular when any level of conflict arises. When Lady Bird wants to buy a magazine to read in bed because of an awful week at school, her mother says that it is something only rich people do.
Another scene that is telling about Marion’s control issues that are also a brief scene is when Lady Bird comes home happy after getting kissed by Danny (Lucas Hedges). Lady Bird is in complete bliss over getting kissed by her crush, and her mother immediately gets on her over the state of her room. She begins to guilt her over her uniform being wrinkled and clothes not put away. She connects it to her wealthy friends verses their financial status. She lays the guilt on thicker, saying her dad Larry (Tracy Letts) won’t be able to get a job if the family looks like trash. The scene ends with Lady Bird asking her mom if she ever just wanted to go to bed without putting her clothes away without her mother getting on her. Before closing the bedroom door, her mother says that her mother was an abusive alcoholic.
When Lady Bird goes shopping for a dress at the thrift store to wear to Thanksgiving at Danny’s grandmother’s house, her mother continues the guilt. Marion says that she doesn’t understand why she would want to spend Thanksgiving with a family she never met rather than spending it with her own family. Because she is upset about losing her grip on Lady Bird, she gets passive aggressive about the way her daughter is walking in the store. Instead of telling her to pick up her feet, she goes on and on about the feet dragging on the floor. To her credit, she is fake nice to Danny when he comes to the house to pick Lady Bird up for Thanksgiving dinner. During Christmas, she apologizes for the small holiday celebration before emphasizing that the socks she bought them were the expensive kind.
Danny eventually calls out Lady Bird’s mom as being scary, and she defends her mother. Her words are not her own, however. Earlier in the film, her brother’s girlfriend, Shelly (Marielle Scott), defends Marion to Lady Bird. Now that Lady Bird defends her mother to Danny, she uses the kind words from Shelly, not her own. I’m not surprised that Lady Bird would need to borrow someone else’s words when Lady Bird takes a shower. Her mother gets angry with her about using two towels. She is short with her daughter saying that the number of towels she uses affects her entire day. She does laundry before work and needs to know if there will be an extra towel to clean or not.
When Lady Bird gets suspended, her mother is distraught with her. Because she knows the close relationship with her daughter and husband have, she uses that against her daughter. Marion points out that she makes her father feel bad with her words and actions. When she has her dad drop her off a block away from the school, and when she says she lives on the wrong side of the tracks. Lady Bird points out to her mother that no matter what she does, it is never good enough. She tells her mother that she will make a lot of money and write a check for all the money it cost to raise her. Instead of Marion seeing the point of this, she lashes out telling Lady Bird that she can never get a job where she will do that.
Their relationship isn’t all bad. After Lady Bird loses her virginity to Kyle and gets upset and leaves, her mother comes to pick her up. They go around town together and look at open houses. This peace between them is short-lived with Marion takes Lady Bird to the thrift store to look at dresses for prom. Frustrated, Lady Bird hates that some dresses are too tight. Instead of being encouraging, she tells her daughter that she shouldn’t have had a second helping of pasta at dinner. When she falls in love with a dress, the reaction from her mother isn’t to say she looks nice but to comment on whether the color is too pink.
Lady Bird tells her mother that she wished her mother liked her. Her mother doesn’t say she likes her but says she is trying to make the daughter the best version of herself she can be. When she graduated, her mother pointed out she walked weird across the stage rather than telling Lady Bird she was proud of her. When Marion finds out that her daughter gets into an east coast school, she gives her the silent treatment until she leaves. Her moment to say goodbye to her daughter is lost, and Lady Bird goes through security before she realizes she wants to say goodbye.
At college, she introduces herself as her given name Christine instead of Lady Bird. She leaves a voicemail for her mother, thanking her and telling her she loves her. Whether their relationship is ever repaired or if she ever returns to Sacramento is left up in the air. Like all us daughters, with a little bit of therapy, we can coexist with a toxic parent. Even if that means we need to move away to figure it out.