Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and Marion (Laurie Metcalf)
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is impetuous, impressed by popularity, self-absorbed, and at times mean-spirited. In other words, she’s a typical modern-day American teen. If you don’t see yourself in Lady Bird, the nominal character in the Greta Gerwig-written and -directed movie, you may see yourself in her good-girl best friend Julie, or in mean-girl and popular Jenna, or pessimistic but privileged Kyle, or secretly gay Danny, or as her parents…or all of the above. Because what Lady Girl doesn’t do is people. What it does do–and wonderfully so–is take a pretty ordinary girl and view her struggles in her world and her family’s world and her school and give an accurate encapsulation of what life is like in these United States, circa the early 2000s, though it could be anytime in America.
When I was in school, I wasn’t a Lady Bird. I was a Julie, the nice girl, who’s a good student, well-behaved and shy, and not at all worldly. I was the sidekick. If Lady Bird characterized herself as living “on the wrong side of the tracks,” Julie lived even farther from the tracks as her friend and, unlike Lady Bird, who felt the world owed her something, Julie chose to accept the world, as unfair as it can be at times, and live within the boundaries set by it. Julie was a much better student than Lady Bird, but Julie ends up at the local community college, while Lady Bird sets her sights on an upper-scale East Coast liberal arts school.
As much as I can relate to Julie, the character I see myself as today, however, isn’t either of the two girls; it’s Lady Bird’s mother, Marion McPherson. I am not sure there’s been a character in any movie I’ve ever seen who doesn’t resemble me more because she resembles many moms. And what’s really interesting is that my elder daughter, who was coming of age at about the same time as Lady Bird is in the movie, told me that she saw herself in Lady Bird and, equally so, me in Marion, whose name, by the way, I had to look up on IMDb because in the movie it’s rarely, if ever, spoken. Why? Presumably because Marion is above all else “Mom.”
Marion is the hardworking, loyal, and at-times angry and put-upon Everymom, handling double shifts to pick up the slack while her husband loses his job and the family struggles financially. She lives in a basic, boring, circa 1970s-furnished house, but has a hobby of checking out open houses just to ooh and aah at the beautiful homes that are within driving distance but still way out of reach for her. Teens, including Lady Bird, sometimes feel (maybe oftentimes feel?) as though their parents’ world–where they live, what they drive–is what it is because that’s who they are, that’s how they want it to be, that’s what they made it, not realizing that dreams become deferred and desires are put on hold when raising a family. Think back to your teenage-hood and tell me you didn’t feel that way about your parents, that they just didn’t get it. Now come into the modern world and tell me everything is exactly as you always wanted it to be. See? This movie hits a cord.
I love Marion. I am Marion, the martyr Marion who comes home from a double shift in the morning and slaves away to make her family a decent breakfast only to be told the eggs are too runny; the frank Marion who is honest with her daughter, letting her know that of course she deserves to have her (selfish) dreams, but at the same time should be more aware of her family’s circumstances; the victimized Marion who sends her daughter to a pricey Catholic school because the local public school is unsafe only to have her daughter pull a stunt that gets her expelled for a few days; the misunderstood Marion who has a good heart (we see it many times) but comes off as the bad guy and in a constant struggle to keep the family afloat.
This movie is not heavy-handed at all and it doesn’t dumb down. There aren’t good guys versus bad guys because there’s a little good and bad in all of us.