23 September 2023

Finding the best version of yourself in Lady Bird

By Wendy Knowlton

4 March 2018

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is seventeen and self-absorbed. Dissatisfied with Sacramento, her “wrong side of the tracks” family and her own identity, she christens herself “Lady Bird” and dreams of triumphs – intellectual, theatrical and romantic – whilst plotting her escape to an East Coast college rich in the culture and excitement she believes her hometown lacks. Largely oblivious to the pain of her unemployed father, Larry (Tracy Letts) and the worries of her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), weary from working the multiple shifts needed to keep the family going, she sees the world through the tunnel vision of teenage desires. When Marion says, “Of course I love you”, Lady Bird has a moment of insight and responds, “But do you like me?” It’s a fair question.

Oscar-nominated Ronan and Metcalf both put in superb performances. Their mother/daughter relationship segues from bickering to bonding and back in seconds, as each infuriates the other. “I want you to be the very best version of yourself” Marion says, but Lady Bird, outwardly brash and confident, reveals her fears. “What if this is the best version?” In her final year of a Catholic education she both resents and needs, she seems set on methodically ticking off the errors of adolescence. She lies about her family home, makes poor relationship choices, manufactures false maths results and ditches her best friend for a glossy substitute. She hardly seems to be fulfilling her mother’s hopes. Marion bluntly states, “With your work ethic, just go to City College and then to jail, and then back to City College and then maybe you’d learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do everything.” People are always telling Lady Bird about herself, and to her credit, eventually, she listens. “You can’t do anything unless you’re the centre of attention,” former friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) cries, and suddenly Christine looks at who she’s been trying to be. Scared, perhaps, that mediocrity was the “best version” of herself, she’d tried the reinvention thing… but found it lacking.

Ultimately, her better self can empathise with a boy who has let her down due to his own sexual identity issues, or go to the prom with a true friend rather than pretend that ditching it is cool to fit in with an edgier crowd. As a new life begins, Lady Bird acknowledges her indebtedness to the past, reclaiming her given name, seeking out the comfort of a church she’s previously mocked and phoning her mother. Sharply scripted and blending angst, poignancy and humour beautifully, Greta Gerwig’s film ends on this final phone call from Christine to her mother – a love letter to family and home. With the perspective of distance, she can finally see what the wise and tolerant Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) told her months before. “You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care… it comes across as love.”

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