Getting to the Heart of Lady Bird: What Makes Greta Gerwig’s Debut Tick

In the pantheon of mother-daughter movies, it might seem like a simplistic statement to say that what makes Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated Lady Bird special is that it’s about a daughter and a mother.

What really differentiates Lady Bird from so many other mother-daughter stories is exactly that: it’s perspective on the central relationship and how this relationship is used to highlight everything that surrounds a young teenage girl’s life. Gerwig uses perspective to widen up the breadth of her story, to show that a story is never just what exists within its margins, it’s also about the messy, sprawling world beyond them.

As The ScreenPrism says in their video essay “What’s so Great About Lady Bird,” the answer lies in how Gerwig’s debut film trickily navigates its central thesis: “that love is a form of attention.” As ScreenPrism points out, everything in the film comes back to this central idea. Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, is constantly paying attention to her—yet the teenage daughter just can’t seem to understand that this is how the mother has chosen to love her. When Lady Bird stops spending time with her best friend, it is a “betrayal about attention” as this source of love has been cut off. And when a key moment in the film leads to one character completely cutting another one out of their life, it becomes apparent that this is a removal of love. Only at this moment, however, do we recognize that the love was there all along. Only when the love is no longer present can we appreciate what it was to begin with.

It could have been easy for Gerwig’s film to fall in to the same trappings of many of its kind. It’s easy for a coming of age film about teenagers, who have an inherently self-centered outlook on life, to take on that self-centered attitude. With Lady Bird, Gerwig seeks to examine the fact that each and every one of us holes up within ourselves as we grow up. Main character Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson lives in world populated by many different kinds of people. Her mom struggles to keep the family afloat, her dad has lost her job, her brother is trying to find one and her brother’s girlfriend was kicked out of her own house and is living with Lady Bird and her family. Beyond this, Lady Bird’s best friend is struggling with accepting herself, her first love is struggling with coming out of his shell and her drama teacher is dealing with depression. Lady Bird is not unaware her surroundings but she is too arrogant to truly understand what each of these ‘other’ feelings means, too arrogant to recognize how much these surroundings mean to her.

Saorsie Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe in Lady Bird

When Lady Bird eventually leaves for college—and leaves her mother behind—she feels the gap in her heart that her home once filled. Only then does she realize how much she loves her home, simply because it is not there for her to pay attention to anymore. The film’s final moments are both a love letter to her mother as well as a love letter to her home. Deeper within this tribute to Sacramento is an unspoken acknowledgment of all of the lost souls around her, all of the faces she observed growing up but never truly thought to examine. Accompanying her on her way to college, courtesy of her father, are crumpled up letters from her mother, half-formed expressions of love in which the details do not matter. Just the fact that her mother took the time to try to write them is enough.

The trick to Gerwig’s film—and how it avoids falling in to the same ruts that its main character does—is that it brings this dual perspective of the mother and daughter. We are with Lady Bird through the majority of the movie but, in the moments that we are not, we are with her mother Marion. A key scene early on in the film highlights Marion’s kindness to a fellow patient and sets up the fact that, even in later scenes with both Lady Bird and Marion, we will be viewing the situations from both sides. As The ScreenPrism states, what helps Lady Bird deliver its unique, emotional punch is that it is a story from “the perspective of the teen and the parent learning to let go.” Yes, Marion is over-bearing and often unfair but Lady Bird is selfish and often acts in disregard of those around her. Without one perspective, we wouldn’t be able to see the other in a sympathetic light. Together, both mother and daughter prove that there is no easy way around growing up, no way to ensure that you won’t get hurt and no way to be the best person you can be. It’s all a process of gradual understanding. Gerwig’s Academy Award nominated screenplay uses multiple perspectives to show that just because you feel sad, doesn’t mean that it’s all about you and just because it’s not all about you, doesn’t mean that you can’t feel sad. MM

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