Arts & Media

Mothers, Daughters, and Lady Bird: How We Relate to Cinema

By Ittai Sopher

Lady Bird depicts mother-daughter relationships in a way no other has before. The movie captures this relationship through a series of subtle interactions between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. We see Lady Bird and Marion crying together throughout the final chapter of The Grapes of Wrath; a tender scene that almost immediately leads to Lady Bird breaking her own arm. Similarly, a fight in a thrift store quickly turns into the two of them joyfully complimenting a prom-dress. The mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of the movie, and will leave a lot of viewers connecting the dots between the film and their own relationships with their mother and/or child. As an audience, we respect the painstaking wisdom of Marion, while also cheering-on the irresistible enthusiasm and passion of Lady Bird.

The movie itself takes place largely during the 2002-2003 academic year during Lady Bird’s final year at Catholic high-school in Sacramento, California. Although the story itself could probably take place during any year, and in any city in the United States. It is coming-of-age story, in which Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan, navigates relationships and college applications. However, the film also makes a concerted effort to build an entire world around each character. The pretentious guy who reads Howard Zinn by the pool, also has father who is slowly dying of cancer. Lady Bird’s father, the ultimate caring and sensitive father, is struggling with depression and often uses his gregariousness to save-face around his children for the fact that he just got laid off from his job. Even with these realities of life in play, the movie never gets too dark. I was smiling throughout the whole thing. The mother-daughter relationship is at the center of the movie, but there are endless amounts of other dynamics that audiences will also enjoy and appreciate.

In an interview with the Canadian Press, writer and director of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig, said that the lack of substantive mother-daughter relationships is a byproduct of a film industry missing the women necessary to tell these stories: “Frankly, I think some of that has to do with the fact that there aren’t that many female writer-directors, because unless you grew up with sisters I don’t know how you’d really be able to witness that up close.” ( Now an Oscar nominee, Gerwig is a trailblazer, notably the fifth female nominee for the Best Director category in the program’s history. Also, if Gerwig takes home the award this March, she will only be the second woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, in the show’s 90 years of production. The  disparity in representation of this extremely common dynamic, essentially gave Gerwig an untapped body of of material to explore when introducing us to Lady Bird and Marion.   

Desiree Santos (SCR ‘19) saw the film with her mother and godmother over winter break and compared the experience of seeing the film with, “going back and reading your diary from high-school”. Desiree also reflected upon how the film made her reconsider a fundamental aspect of parent-child relationships: “as much as a teenager you are usually very dependent on your mother. What I thought the most interesting takeaway of this movie was  how it also showed how the mother is dependent on the daughter as well… That’s something I had never considered.”

I felt a strong connection to Lady Bird, since, I too, was motivated in traveling to California by symbolic goals. In the first scene of the film, after listening to an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath,  a book about the migration of Oklahoma farmers to California during the Dust Bowl, Lady Bird says “I want to go to places where there is culture like New York, or even Connecticut, or New Hampshire”. In this line I could see how my desire to leave New Jersey and go out west had the same simplistic reasoning, yet both of our dreams represented a uniquely American desire to escape to the other side of the continent in order to seek out some version of a Promised Land.

What surprised me though was when I interviewed my mom about this aspect of the film. Not usually a big movie person, my brother persuaded her into seeing Lady Bird this past fall. However, my mom told me over the phone how she was surprised that the film helped her reflect on how some aspects of her relationship with my grandma influenced her decision to support my move to California from New Jersey: “I just thought like I don’t want you looking back at your life and saying ‘why didn’t my mother let me do this or let me do that’. Like if I didn’t let you do this you couldn’t have certain opportunities because of me. And I feel like having that experiences of not being able to go where I wanted for school, made me realize ‘OK I can do this’. And then it’s funny because I was talking to my mother during this whole process, and she was making the same arguments about California that she made when I was in the same situation”.

My conversations with mother and my initial reactions to the film made me realize that I saw my own life story in Lady Bird. We were from opposite sides of the country, with completely different religious upbringings, different relationships with our mothers, different genders, and conflicting personalities. But Lady Bird’s story somehow becomes your own. And as soon as I realized that, I learned that last semester, students from around the Claremont Colleges, were waiting until they got home to see Lady Bird– so they can see it with their own mother.