A heartfelt look at mother-daughter relationships and the pain of growing up
It tells you a lot about my experience of time at the moment that I was 100% convinced this film came out last year. I still can’t really believe it was as long ago as 2017, and that I still haven’t seen it. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut was hugely commended on release, and is currently sitting at an incredible 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s rare that a film lives up to that kind of praise, but I think in this case it probably does. It dragged a little in places, and felt longer than its 1 hour 33 minute run-time, but it so perfectly captures its subject matter that it makes up for this. Nothing about the film’s story or setting is really that remarkable, but that is its strength. It is the best depiction of a mother-daughter relationship that I have seen on screen. Thankfully my own mother was a lot more supportive and openly kind when I was growing up, but there is something so universal and relatable about that painful question of whether our own mothers actually like us, and vice versa. Saoirse Ronan delivers a typically skillful performance, but it was Laurie Metcalf as her mother who won my heart the most. All the performances are believable and human – even if it did take a few beats for me to not see Timothée Chalomet as Laurie from Little Women (even their hair is the same).
Having seen Little Women first, it is hard not to compare the two films. Despite all its accolades, I remain firm in my belief that Gerwig’s adaptation is Little Women for the Instagram age, more concerned with pleasing aesthetics than harsh reality. Bizarrely, despite also being devoid of smartphones, set in a time on the cusp of technology’s invasion of our daily lives, Lady Bird feels far more removed from the influence of social media than Little Women. Though its artfully appreciative shots of Sacramento would not look out of place on a hipster’s Instagram page, they serve as an expression of the characters’ feelings, rather than the straightforward visual appeals to the viewer we find in Little Women. There are parallels between Jo March and Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson – each carving out a place for themselves in a world that doesn’t fully understand them, but Lady Bird feels somehow more truthful. Both have to get to grips with their families’ socio-economic status, but Gerwig’s engagement with relative poverty feels more honest in Lady Bird. The grinding monotony, the mental ill-health it results in, the rippling impact. It isn’t a moral signal like in Little Women, it is a truthful examination. We are cleverly led through the film; like teenagers, and Lady Bird herself, we are so wrapped up in her emotional life that we only see hints and suggestions, until her family’s status and its impact is made painfully clear, to her and us.
The film’s ability to draw us into and through the emotional lives of its characters is its true strength. There are no real ‘villains’ as such in this film, just real people, making the kind of poor judgments and mistakes we all make when trying to claw our way through the world. Even Kyle’s misguided preaching is just an expression of how teenagers tried to grapple with the errors of their parents’ generation. He is far from likable, but he is understandable.
I’ll admit that Lady Bird wasn’t the best film to watch in the middle of a pandemic a long way from home. The un-idealised but loving appreciation for one’s home, though directed at a very different place to my own home, speaks to something I think we have all felt at some point.
Lady Bird perfectly captures the ennui, excitement, highs and lows of navigating love, friendship and socio-economic circumstances as a teenager. Though much of the plot focuses on romance, it is ultimately love for one’s friends and one’s family that are at the film’s core. It is a plea that we recognise the value of these relationships, not our romantic ones, while we can. The film acts as a strangely comforting reminder of the universality of human experience – after this crisis, we still have the same hopes and worries that we have always known. It is definitely worth giving yourself the time to watch this film. Just be prepared to FaceTime your mother as soon as the credits roll.
As an addendum to this review, writer Michelle Cruz Gonzales has made some pretty convincing arguments that Gerwig plagiarised the 2002 film Real Women Have Curves when creating Lady Bird; something that others have also noticed. Read her article here, and an update here. In all honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if a well-known white woman was able to thus exploit the work of lesser-known women of colour and get away with it. I have yet to watch Real Women Have Curves, but I will seek it out now I’ve seen Lady Bird. It is a reminder that we must try to be better versed and more aware of the overlooked or downright exploited precedents for widely admired cultural content. We should do our best to give credit where it is due, and Gerwig’s (feigned?) lack of inspirations and precedents raises questions. It’s tempting to give her the benefit of the doubt, but for now I’ll hold off on a verdict until I can make a proper comparison. But as a general rule, if a woman of colour is telling you that she (or her peers) has been taken advantage of (especially by a white woman), what cause do we really have not to believe her?
Did you enjoy Lady Bird? And what are your thoughts on the plagiarism controversy? Please do share your reflections in the comments below! (Scroll down for the ‘Leave a Reply’ section!)