Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut film, Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, offers a poignant and compelling coming of age story of Sacramento teenager Christine McPherson (or “Lady Bird” as she insists she be called). Of all the exceptional films to grace our screens last year, Lady Bird was by far my favourite, and for good reason. Lady Bird is in many ways a celebration of womanhood, as well as women in film. The focus of its narrative through the mother-daughter dynamic is exceptionally rare in Hollywood. Additionally, Lady Bird’s beautifully assembled characters, inviting world, and delicately crafted aesthetic, earned Gerwig tremendous praise, and her Oscar nod for directing was the first for a woman in eight years.
I see Gerwig’s unique portrayal of the mother-daughter dynamic as an important examination of generational femininity. In particular, the ways in which female identity is often passed down from mother to daughter. The film’s eschewal of conventional romance plot lines between its female protagonist and her male love interests emphasises Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother as the most crucial to the film’s narrative. It reminds us, in simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking fashion, of the first and most important love story in nearly all of our own lives; the love, heartbreak and hatred each of us experience at one point with the first woman we ever meet. Our mothers.
I think that the single, most important shot of Lady Bird, is its opening one. A high angled close-up of Lady Bird and her mother Marion opens the film, as they lie asleep on a motel bed. The pair’s pose is especially crucial in this instance, in that it provides the foundation for which the film is built upon. Lady Bird and her mother face each other in the middle of the bed, eyes closed, each with an arm raised to their face, both lying in the exact same position, albeit mirrored. Mother mirrors daughter, and daughter mirrors mother. Before the audience hears a single line of dialogue; this shot constructs the main impetus of the film: feminine identity is most often modeled by mothers, and adopted by daughters.
Their positioning also uncannily resembles that of the conventional position of twins in the womb. Such a likeness not only further emphasizes this maternal theme, but by having Lady Bird’s mother also resemble the infant in the womb, the shot suggests that the duo share a symbiotic relationship, that they grow and develop together.
This growth and development is manifested through the pair’s chaotic relationship, one that oscillates between volatility and genuine connection as Lady Bird transitions into womanhood. The pair visits a suburban thrift store in search of a dress after Lady Bird is invited by her first boyfriend Danny to his family’s Thanksgiving. As Lady Bird picks out a potential dress, she is scolded by her mother for the choice, and she admits she doesn’t have any idea what she’s doing. Her mother then recalls her own experience from a dinner party in the same wealthy neighborhood, using that experience as a guide to find an appropriate dress. However, the pair continues to bicker vehemently in the aisle.
Suddenly, their argument comes to an abrupt halt, as Lady Bird’s mother holds up the perfect dress. In a jarring transition from their argument, the pair swiftly declare their love for the dress in unison. The scene then cuts to Lady Bird’s mother staying up late at her sewing machine, making the necessary adjustments to the outfit. The sewing/alteration of the pink formal dress, as a potent symbol of femininity and womanhood in the film, serves as a passing down of not just femininity itself, but worldly experience.
The constant back and forth between mother and daughter is in many ways, indicative of the pair’s relationship as a whole. Love and the coming of age, is not pretty, nor is it consistent. Real love is defined by perseverance and moments of connection and affection. Mother and daughter are simultaneously volatile and joyous. One minute the pair bicker in the aisle, the next they unite in their joy at finding the perfect dress. One minute they weep and smile together after listening to a tape of “Grapes of Wrath” during a car trip, the next, Lady Bird literally jumps out of the moving car after her mother scolds her work ethic.
Lady Bird’s final moments best demonstrate this intrinsic beauty and power of generational femininity. Still reeling from their most recent argument, Marion takes Lady Bird to Sacramento airport as the latter departs to New York for college. Marion initially refuses to leave the car or say goodbye, before having an agonizing change of heart. Marion dashing back to the airport in vain to say goodbye to the film’s protagonist is itself a subtle subversion of an all too entrenched trope in the romance genre, as the romantic interest sprinting to the airport is a far too common scene. Instead, with Lady Bird’s two main romantic interests falling by the wayside, the mother is positioned as the most powerful and magnetic force of love in the narrative.
Finally, calling home when she arrives in New York, Lady Bird recalls her first time driving through Sacramento, illustrating her newfound agency and independence. As she does, the camera cuts between footage of the two women driving the family car by themselves. They go through the same bends and tunnels, looking over the same shoulder, unknowingly mirroring each other. Lady Bird’s transition into womanhood is ultimately measured by her mother’s experiences, which become a crucial blueprint for her own sense of self and femininity. As she leaves her name on the family message machine, she calls herself “Christine” for the first time in the film. In doing so, she is accepting the very first instance of meaning and significance her mother ever gave her: her name. Lady Bird realizes that her independence, her transition into adulthood and sense of self, is only made possible by the efforts and struggles of the woman who raised her.
Daniel Carrigy is a PhD candidate in English at Macquarie University. His research focus is on the American frontier and American identity in contemporary literature, film, and television. He completed a Masters of Research on female readership communities in early eighteenth century England. In his spare time, he can be found on a soccer field, or patting/annoying his cat.