For The Mom of Mom and Dad: a Thank-You to LADY BIRD
I came to the conclusion that it was going to be a mixture of the two, and, regardless of whether it’d be predominantly good or bad, I was under the impression it would make an awesome movie. I don't think I was misguided in that expectation, as some of my favorite movies were high school movies. I was waiting for the sweet romance of …Say Anything, or the surreal, late-night weirdness of Sixteen Candles, or that one perfect car ride, like in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was waiting for these big, defined scenes to show themselves in my life, but they never really seemed to. Of the oeuvre of teen movies I’d seen, I just about related most to Napoleon Dynamite, a movie where almost nothing happens.
Some people do remember their high school years with that great cinematic quality, and I in no way mean to invalidate that feeling for those readers who do. It just wasn’t what I experienced. I graduated high school disillusioned, wondering if I had done something wrong. If John Hughes couldn’t make a movie out of my high school life, how meaningful could my life have been? I believed that, since my life’s experiences never quite their way into the canon of teen classics, I had lived a kind of invalid high school truth. But, now that I’ve seen Lady Bird, I’m beginning to toy with the notion that maybe it was that cinematic ideal itself, not my own life, that was incomplete. I didn’t realize that I was entrusting the wrong director with my quiet high school life, and I didn’t realize that seeing my ordinary life could be so rewarding. John Hughes may not have been able to make my life’s movie. But maybe Greta Gerwig could.
Lady Bird got the kind of awards boost normally reserved for remarkable films. And while Lady Bird is more than remarkable in quality, it’s unremarkable in its premise. It is a story of the buildup of little events that make a high schooler’s life— first love, phases of friendship, the significance of a favorite song, finding yourself. And that’s just it— Lady Bird doesn’t romanticize or mythologize high school. Unlike, say, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Lady Bird does not introduce us to a sort of high school urban legend; and unlike some of the more recent teen movie staples (see Juno), Lady Bird does not go out of its way to hit you with quirkiness. Everything feels grounded and real.
Realest of all is the protagonist herself, a seventeen-year-old girl who is close to independence but unable yet to reach it, close to a definite identity but unable to pin it down, close to experiencing life’s grandeur but only able to experience it within the confines of her town. She calls herself Lady Bird. Her real name is Christine McPherson. She wishes she lived in the beautiful blue house on the other side of town. She lives in a fairly small lower-middle-class home with her mom, dad, adopted brother Miguel and his girlfriend. Lady Bird’s stabs at independence and dreams of a bigger, grander life don’t always line up with the reality of her family’s situation. Her parents haven’t been able to provide the kind of life she dreams about. Her mother, who takes it upon herself to make sure Lady Bird avoids the sting of disappointment, is often careless with her words in a misguided effort to lower her daughter’s expectations. Later in the movie, Lady Bird learns that her father has been battling depression for many years and that he has just lost his job.
There comes a point in a child’s life where the assumed mythology surrounding her parents fades away. With this, she learns about the humanity of her parents. Parents get sad, depressed. Parents make mistakes. Parents say the wrong things. But with this unmasking of the "infallible" parent comes an even bigger realization of the unconditional love a parent holds for a child, a kind of unconditional love that shines through in hardship and in facing reality together.
One scene in particular epitomizes this for me. Lady Bird and her parents are gathered in their living room. Her mother brings up the ways Lady Bird has been unwittingly hurting her father’s feelings— Lady Bird tells her friends that she’s from “the wrong side of the tracks” and makes her father drop her off a block before where she’s supposed to go. Mr. McPherson, quietly distraught, responds with something along the lines of “oh, honey, you weren’t supposed to tell her all that.”
There is so much power in this one scene: it reveals the insecurity Lady Bird’s parents carry with them, insecurity that returns again when Mrs McPherson demands Lady Bird to clean up her room— “we don’t want people to think we’re trashy.” It also reveals how easily impacted parents are by their children despite how children assume that there’s a kind of shield that protects adults from the remarks of their inferiors. Perhaps most profoundly, however, we see the quiet struggle parents face when they provide for their children, a kind of quiet struggle that doesn’t surface in many teen movies. Mr McPherson never told Lady Bird that her remarks hurt him because he loved her too much and didn’t want to worry her. Mrs McPherson tells Lady Bird how she hurt her father because she loves her daughter too much to keep her in the dark. We see not a mom and a dad pretending to be perfect; rather, we see three fallible human beings interacting, aware of their familial roles, trying to find the line of understanding that will get them through the next phase of their lives. Of all the scenes in the movie, this was the one that made me cry— a lot— in the theater.
I said previously that I felt like Greta Gerwig was the only artist who truly captures what my high school experience was like, and I’m sure it applies to many others as well. So much of my high school experience revolved around my life with my parents, with whom I’m incredibly close. Like Lady Bird, I went out with friends, I participated in the school play, I stressed and prepared for my future, I went to prom with my closest friends. But at the heart of it all was my parents, our vicarious joys and struggles, our lazy nights together. With Lady Bird herself, this is also the heart of her experience; and while she doesn’t always understand her parents (particularly her mother) she realizes as her dependence on them comes to a close just how much she loves them. I think this might be the most bittersweet part of growing up, and Lady Bird expresses it perfectly, all the way up to one phone call at the end of the movie.
We're not sure what Lady Bird is going to do with the rest of her life. We're not sure how she's going to explore brand new opportunities without parents present all the time to rebel against or try to please. We know she's going to make mistakes. We know she's going to be human. We also know that she will be guided by the unconditional love her parents have shown her.
I’m in college now. I’m only about a half hour from my parents, but I’m living on my own and trying to carve out my own life, just like Lady Bird. I feel like, more than ever, I can look at my parents at eye-level, unmasked and human, and also see the full extent of their love for me. And it blows me away, just like it blows Lady Bird away. It's a kind of understanding that exceeds the best prom night, exceeds graduation, exceeds a romantically forlorn boy, boombox exalted.
So thank you, Greta Gerwig, for calling attention to my own beautiful high school movie. And if you’re reading this, Mom and Dad, I love you more than words can say. I am happy that I can appreciate you not just as the parents in my life, but as two friends who made my high school experience perfect. You continue to make my experience perfect every single day.