“Your mom’s hard on you.”
“Yeah well, she loves me a lot.”
In Greta Gerwig’s critically-acclaimed directorial debut, Lady Bird, she shows us a heartfelt love letter to her home town of Sacramento. A time-capsule of her youth and an era not so long ago. However, just by shifting your focus to the other generation, we are gifted with a whole new perspective. Gerwig creates such a distinct and shocking authenticity in Lady Bird’s parents – it’s a feature many audience members left thinking about. Most of the friends I spoke to thought the same thing upon leaving the cinema: ‘I should really call my mum.’
My parents have both worked full-time for as long as I can remember, I spent my afternoons in after-school clubs and my summers in their day-care spin-offs. The average mum and dad can’t afford to not work full-time, looking after a kid or two is kind of expensive. As Lady Bird’s mother, Marion (a magnificent Laurie Metcalf), demonstrates when she looks at the receipt in her hand and then to her son – a cashier at a local supermarket – and nervously asks, “This is with your employee discount?” During a heated exchange with Lady Bird, Marion exclaims: “Do you have any idea how much it costs to raise you? Do you think I like working double shifts at the psych hospital?” Only one of many examples Gerwig includes to show us just how much of themselves our parents sacrifice for us. Lady Bird then demands her mother give her an exact number, so that when she’s older and has a ‘really good job’ she will pay her back, then she doesn’t ever have to speak to her again. Strong and hurtful words. But, for most, an average argument with our parents as an angsty know-it-all teen.
Marion is a wonder woman. She works herself incredibly hard to look after the family when Lady Bird’s father, Larry (Tracy Letts), loses his job. But she still makes little efforts to make everyone around her feel special. Gerwig shows this at Marion’s place of work, when at the end of a long shift she gives a small gift to a colleague for his new-born and asks how they’re doing. She demonstrates it again when she is thrift shopping with Lady Bird and says hello to someone she knows, smiles and asks if the family are well. It’s a mysterious gift of a mother, to remember everyone’s names, everyone’s birthdays, who’s kids are starting what year of school. It’s small and subtle, but when you notice it, it’s almost remarkable.
Lady Bird’s mother loves her more than anything but, like my own mother, doesn’t show it with touchy-feely lovey-doviness and adoration. She makes her love known in her actions. She nags Lady Bird about not hanging up her uniform after school, (“we can’t treat our clothes like this”) she cares how she comes across to her peers and doesn’t want the other kids to think any less of her. The fact that she even attends the school she does (a highly-regarded Catholic establishment called Immaculate Heart) is a result of Lady Bird’s brother Miguel witnessing a kid getting knifed at her old school. Marion sought out a scholarship to send her somewhere better and safer.
Both Marion and Larry give so much to their children, even taking in Miguel’s girlfriend when her parents kick her out. They think nothing of it and just stretch themselves that little bit more. With so much going on at home, Gerwig invites us to see Marion at her most peaceful; when she’s driving alone through Sacramento. She finds her solace there, smiling as she views the bends and curves of the streets of home. The non-diegetic music cuts abruptly when she exits the car to a busy household, and Lady Bird’s newest complaint. It’s important that we see parents this way, that they simply need a break, they cannot be always ‘on’ – they are still human.
We are reminded that our parents are not indestructible super-humans who can look after us forever. Lady Bird’s father, Larry, suffers from depression. When she learns this, she thinks it’s because of his recent unemployment. Marion reminds her of the reality, he’s struggled with it for a number of years. “I didn’t know”, her daughter responds meekly. It’s as though we are oblivious, we forget they can suffer like we can, they have worries and ambitions just as we do. Gerwig wakes us up to this fact in a small way – it doesn’t need to be a huge plot point because it’s normal.
Despite his depression, like Marion, Larry prioritizes his kids above all. When he leaves a job interview and discovers Miguel is about to be seen for the same position, he straightens his sons tie and wishes him well. He wants the best for him, even if it means he must step back.
In Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig has given me a film that I can watch and be reminded of how lucky I am. I am lucky that my parents care like Lady Bird’s do, that they make sacrifices, that they would put my brother and I at the top of their priority list for as long as we live. From Lady Bird, Larry, and Marion, I’ve learnt to appreciate where I come from – both the place and the people.
By Millicent Thomas
Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian who will be studying film at Bath School of Art & Design from September 2018. Hobbies include theatre, museums and waiting for Charles Xavier to show up and tell her she’s the world’s most powerful mutant. Her favourite films include Whiplash, Her, Logan and Short Term 12. You can follow her on Instagram at @millicentathomas and twitter at @millicentonfilm