“Lady Bird” is now the highest rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Ever. It’s also quite possibly the most wonderful movie. Ever. But universal acclaim hasn’t saved Greta Gerwig’s masterpiece from a serving of hot (and very bad) takes.
Recently, an article popped up on my Twitter: “’Lady Bird’ and Cycles of Abuse,” in which the writer poses an argument that “Lady Bird” is not a careful portrait of the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship, but in fact a story about maternal abuse.
This is, of course, wrong. And I won’t dedicate much more space to the ways in which someone named “Jim” missed the nuances and complexities of the mother-daughter relationship in “Lady Bird” (except to say that he missed them all). But his misstep did get me thinking about everything “Lady Bird” gets right.
Gerwig gets all the details of semi-suburban adolescence correct: the defiant rejection of Catholic school communion, the popular girl’s Range Rover, the sensitive (and closeted) heartthrob’s puka shell necklace. Justin Timberlake plays at a party where the parents are upstairs, but “they don’t care if we drink.”
All those little, carefully chosen details create a world that is both factually and emotionally real. The emotional reality comes from the delicacy and honesty with which Gerwig handles her character’s relationships.
There is no “good” and “bad” in “Lady Bird.” We don’t want Lady Bird to win against (or despite of) her mother or Danny or even Kyle or Jenna. Because none of those characters, though they make life harder for our heroine, are bad. And even Lady Bird can fluctuate between cruelty and compassion, often within the same scene.
Lady Bird and Marion’s relationship is built on this duality. In one scene, Lady Bird can grab a notepad and demand her mother tell her how much it costs to raise her so she can one day pay her back and “never have to see her again,” and in another see Marion pick up that same pad and struggle to write a letter to her daughter as she gets ready to leave for college.
And we can understand that those actions are both attempts at the impossible but inevitable process of separation. Lady Bird will leave Marion, and sometime in the distant but approaching future, Marion will leave Lady Bird. And neither one of them can be ready for either departure.
Before Lady Bird leaves, Marion scrambles to prepare her for the unknowable beast that is the world outside her home. And through that rushed preparation, “You’re dragging your feet” becomes a different way of saying “I love you.”
That moment — which comes up twice during the course of the film — as the two shop for dresses, is one of the most obviously recognizable for any mother or daughter. I went to prom in 2015 as opposed to 2002, so after my mom and I fought in a department store I went home and bought my dress online. That act — choosing a dress without my mom — is in the same family as Lady Bird choosing to go to Danny’s Thanksgiving or hiding her college process from her mother. It’s a conscious act of exclusion that serves as preparation for a time in the near future when that type of inclusion won’t always be an option.
Lady Bird and her mother spend the movie creating space between each other. They push each other away, but they rarely — save Lady Bird’s dramatic exit in the first scene — try to escape each other. They fight, but stay in the same room after.
That’s why Marion’s silence isn’t abusive and her criticism isn’t cruel. It must be a complicated brand of love to prepare your child to leave you. Marion wants Lady Bird to be the best version of herself she can be so she tells her to stand up straight and hang up her uniform and apply to in-state colleges.
What it takes for Marion’s wish to be fulfilled is for Lady Bird to fly the nest.
I talk about my mother now in a way my 18 or even 20-year-old self could never imagine. With a kind of love and reverence and frequency that I didn’t realize was in such opposition to the way I used to talk about her until I saw the movie.
I talk about her the way Lady Bird starts to at the end of the film. She spends the film rejecting everything her mother has given her—her name, her hair color—and then finally, miles away from her mother, she starts taking them back.
And that concession of guilt, that apology, is an impossible one to articulate. So, when she calls Marion at the end of the film all she can say is: “Did you get emotional the first time you drove in Sacramento?”
And we get it. That in itself is a kind of apology for a kind of cruelty that doesn’t always warrant one. It’s a reconnection that tries to do yet another impossible thing: make up for lost time.
Now, older and wiser, I look back on the anger my high school self spit at my mother and I regret it. I regret all the hours of silence and fights in the car and times I slammed my door. But I know I couldn’t change it.
The stage after teen angst doesn’t have a good name. Existential dread, maybe? My twenties? Whatever this thing is called, I’m in it. And, at the end of the movie, “Lady Bird” is entering it. Picking up the pieces of the things our mothers gave us that we threw away and trying to say sorry, without being able — of course — to actually say it.