“Dear Lady Bird, when I got pregnant with you, it was a miracle.”
The letters that Marion (Laurie Metcalf, “Roseanne”) writes to her daughter are never read aloud. She never gives them to her because she is afraid that Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”) will “judge her writing abilities.” Lady Bird only sees them because her father (Tracy Letts, “Ford v. Ferrari”) fishes them out of the garbage and sneaks them into her suitcase before she leaves for college. You have to pause the film to be able to read the crumpled letters. So much of the love in this film goes unspoken in hopes that it might hurt less.
“Lady Bird” is a coming-of-age story about Christine, who asks to be called Lady Bird, as she exits high school and grapples with her relationship with her mother. There’s no shortage of writing about this film out there, but I do sometimes feel that discourse about the film centers on Lady Bird as an individual rather than in relation to those around her. We see ourselves in her as a heroine taking on the world because that is what high school feels like. It’s hard to remember that our mothers once felt the same way.
Really, I think that Lady Bird is a 21st-century Holden Caulfield, and Greta Gerwig (“20th Century Women”) is our J.D. Salinger. Lady Bird is a bitter, mean, clever, funny, original conformist. We identify with her as much as we resent her. She wants to “live through something.” Ironically, she just witnessed 9/11 the year before, but the things that happen in our lives never seem as earth-shattering as they do in books, do they?
It’s the impetus of her first on-screen fight with her mother. Her mother, who was raised by an abusive, alcoholic mother, feels that Lady Bird has a “great life.” In a lot of ways, she does, but she’s not just looking for the bottom rows of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Lady Bird desperately, desperately wants an adventure. She feels that the real stories only happen in proximity to her: her theater director grieves for his son, her first boyfriend worries about coming out, her second boyfriend has a father dying of cancer. The problems in her life feel so small in comparison.
Gerwig does an incredible job of tricking us into thinking the same thing. A story about Lady Bird’s brother watching someone get stabbed is bracketed by the phrase “Immaculate Fart.” At the psychiatric ward where Marion works, a patient tries to hurt someone or themselves off-screen. While Marion admits that it was scary, she simply says that they’ll have to go back to felt-tip markers and hands her coworker a gift for his newborn daughter. Lady Bird actually jumps out of a moving car on the highway, and Gerwig is able to make us laugh instead of cry about it. It feels like when you’re telling a story about your life at a party, and only when you say it out loud do you realize how fucked up it actually is.
Like all of us, Lady Bird is a composition of everyone around her. She smokes cloves because her brother’s girlfriend does. She reads the same book she sees Kyle (Timothée Chalamet, “Dune”) reading to be close to him. She wears her new friend’s cardigan after she loses her virginity — a friend she only made because she wanted to be popular. As deeply as she tries to be her own person, in some ways, she never can be.
To her greatest chagrin, her real name comes from a religion she has trouble identifying with. She doesn’t want to be Christine, the feminized version of Christian. She tells her guidance counselor that there is “no way” she’s going to a Catholic college and cracks jokes at an anti-abortion assembly at her school. In a scene where students are receiving Communion, she has her arms crossed over her chest — the script reveals that this is because she’s Baptist. She calls herself Lady Bird instead of Christine, which Gerwig says comes from an 18th-century poem:
“Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children all gone.”
That’s really the main problem, isn’t it? She wants to fly away home. She hates her hometown of Sacramento, “the Midwest of California.” When she finally makes it to college in New York, some guy at a party asks her where she’s from. She says Sacramento at first, but when he asks again because he couldn’t hear her, she pauses and says San Francisco. It’s interesting: She introduces herself to this guy as Christine, but she can only go halfway. She can be her mother’s daughter, but she can’t be from her mother’s home.
It’s something Lady Bird grapples with up until the final scene of the film, asking her mother, “Did you feel emotional the first time you drove in Sacramento?” There’s this gossamer umbilical cord tying her to her mother as Gerwig cuts between symmetrical shots of Lady Bird and Marion driving on the same highways. It’s something Lady Bird can only verbalize in fragments as she says, “All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing. But I wanted to tell you I love you. Thank you, I’m… thank you.” It’s really something holy.
At the party, Lady Bird asks this guy if he believes in God, and he says he doesn’t, because it seems ridiculous. She looks away and says, more to herself, “People call themselves by names their parents made up for them, but they don’t believe in God.” She spent all that time conforming in high school, pretending she hated her teacher and telling popular kids that she lived in a big house, and now she finally realizes it’s not about just going along with things. You shouldn’t call yourself something just because someone tells you to, and you shouldn’t think that that urge to do what you’re told is any less powerful than anything in the Old Testament. Maybe there really is something poignant and true about Madonna and Child.
“Lady Bird” is a very religious film to me, as an ex-Catholic-schooler. When Lady Bird wakes up in the emergency room after a night of drinking, she walks to the nearest church. She watches the choir sing and tears well up in her eyes. Outside, she calls her parents and tells them she loves them, and that Christine is a good name. She still isn’t quite sure that her mom likes her, but she knows that she loves her. In the end, that’s all that really matters. She might not yet forgive her mom for everything, and her mom might not yet forgive her, but they still love each other. And that’s a story worth telling.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.