Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, has been thoroughly—and deservedly—praised as a quietly ambitious achievement in the crowded canon of “teen girl movies,” a label I deploy with the utmost affection.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
But I can’t stop thinking about this lovely, bittersweet little movie because of what else it manages to be: a thoughtful coming-of-age story about a high school senior named Christine (Saoirse Ronan), whose headstrong nature and stubborn dedication to pursuing an extraordinary life are captured by her demanding everyone call her Lady Bird; a heart-wrenching film about a mother and daughter, two women who love each other deeply, although they may not much like each other much just yet, and the pain they inflict as they test the limits of their strong wills. But what struck me as most remarkable about the film is its nuanced, deft handling of social class—a reality teen movies usually address with hyperbole or avoid altogether by making their characters white and comfortably upper middle class by default.
But Lady Bird’s parents aren’t comfortable. They’re barely making ends meet, a harsh reality our heroine is forcibly made aware of as the film progresses. Her family’s economic realities act as a kind of grounding negative force, dragging the ascendent, confident teen back to Earth when she’s most inclined to let her dreams for her future self soar. Again and again, Lady Bird’s grandiose visions (which don’t feel much different than most teens’ inflated senses of self) come into conflict with the material realities of her thoroughly lower-middle class life, which is devoid of the rich teen signifiers like her having own car or cell phone.
For teenage girls still struggling to figure out who they are and where they stand, what you have—or don’t—can feel like the most important thing, with any one thing capable of carrying enough psychological weight to redefine your social station or your identity. And for the most part, Lady Bird exists outside of the pull of the latest must-have thing, choosing quirky clothing and affectations in the face of her wealthier classmates’ gleaming prep. But she and her best friend Julie (played by newcomer Beanie Feldstein) do engage in one notable exception when they wistfully fantasize about the lives they would lead if they called a particular Robin’s egg blue colonial dream house in Sacramento’s fashionable 40s neighborhood their home.
As the girls stand in front of the house on their walk home from school, they dream out loud about the lifestyle they imagine would go along with living in that house, spinning whimsical imagined dialogue about asking their mothers for after school snacks brought to their bedrooms while entertaining friends. The house reappears multiple times in the film, serving as a more symbolically important setting than the home Lady Bird’s lived in all her life, an outsized metaphor for her longing and unfulfilled dreams. The symbolic embodiment of Lady Bird’s fully realized life (or one she thinks she needs in order to be happy) is within walking distance, but somehow still feels countless miles removed from her own world.
It’s Lady Bird’s mother, Marion (played by a tough-as-nails-but-tender Laurie Metcalf)—absent at key moments like senior prom because she’s working double shifts at the psych hospital—who provides the most regular reminders, both explicit and not, of how material realities limit life’s options and wear down our optimism over time, making her Lady Bird’s true central antagonist. Marion repeatedly reminds her daughter that the private Catholic school she hates attending is exorbitantly expensive even under the best economic circumstances. You get the feeling that she’s trying to convey hard-fought lessons about what her daughter should realistically expect out of life if you’re born into the struggling—and ever-shrinking—middle class. She’s trying to steel her daughter against life’s inevitable disappointments and use tough love to mold her into a survivor—instead, Lady Bird only sees another person trying to clip her wings.
The stakes of what would otherwise be normal, if particularly militant, mother-daughter squabbles also feel higher in Lady Bird, because the stakes are unfairly raised when you grow up a member of the at-risk middle class. We’re made acutely aware of that fact as Marion’s worries about whether her upper middle-class neighbors are looking at her teenage daughter’s next-day, rumpled clothes and judging the whole family, including her unemployed husband, as “trash.” After Lady Bird arrives home late from a school dance—interrupting a tense parental talk about the family’s dire financial straits—Marion stomps after Lady Bird to her bedroom, seizing on the moment to redirect her anger at her daughter, who’s over the moon after her first kiss with a boy.
As the scene continues, it becomes exceedingly clear that dirty clothes aren’t really the issue at all, and that Marion is projecting very real economic anxiety onto her daughter. It’s a richly textured scene worth quoting at length (courtesy of the film’s distributor, A24):
Marion: This uniform is going to look like TRASH Monday! This is not right—we can’t treat our clothes like this. I don’t know what your wealthy friends do.
Lady Bird: Why do you care what I do to my clothes?
Marion: Your father does not have a job.
Lady Bird: What?
Marion: He lost his job, OK? Do you need him to come in here and explain it to you? Of course he probably wouldn’t do it anyway, he’s Mr. Nice Guy. I always have to be the Bad Guy.
Lady Bird: Can we please talk about this tomorrow?
Marion: You can’t look like a rag because that makes us look like rags and some of your friend’s fathers could employ your father and they won’t do that if it looks like his family is trash you understand?
Lady Bird: Didn’t you ever do to sleep without putting all your clothes away perfectly? Like even once? And don’t you wish you Mom hadn’t gotten angry?
Marion: My mother was an abusive alcoholic.
Marion’s conversation-ending final line, when she literally closes the door on her daughter, lands like a slap in the face.
Another illustrative emotional high-point of Lady Bird comes when our protagonist and her mother have an all-out verbal brawl after she’s suspended for wise-cracking during a Catholic school lecture on abortion. Marion unloads on Lady Bird, telling her they do everything for her, the scope of which she can’t begin to grasp or appreciate. The confrontation also brings Lady Bird’s distinctly teenage ability to be so righteously forthright in what she says, but so blithely unaware of how it sounds, to a head.
Marion: EVERYTHING we do is for you. EVERYTHING. You think I like driving that car around? Do you? You think I like working double shifts at the psych hospital? You needed to go to the Catholic school because your brother saw somebody get knifed in front of him at the public school, is that what you want??
Marion, to Lady Bird: You think your Dad and I don’t know how you are ashamed of us? Your dad knows, he knows why you ask us to drop you a block away—
Lady Bird: —I didn’t mean to—
Marion: You make him feel horrible, HORRIBLE, do you know that?
Lady Bird (crying): I’m sorry.
Marion mutters “wrong side of the tracks” under her breath, a callback to when Lady Bird’s boyfriend visits their home for the first time and, in his naive way, sweetly reasons to her parents why Lady Bird uses the line (you have to cross “actual tracks” to get there). He kindly laughs, unaware of what he’s revealed about Lady Bird distancing herself from her parents—and her upbringing—to her peers.
Lady Bird tries to explain but is immediately derailed:
Marion: It’s just a joke, mom and dad don’t care. We didn’t think we’d be in this house 25 years, we thought we’d move someplace better, whatever we give you it’s never enough.
Lady Bird: It is enough.
Marion: Do you have any idea how much it cost to raise you? How much you’re THROWING away every day?
Lady Bird: Give me a number.
Lady Bird: GIVE ME A NUMBER!
Marion: I don’t understand.
Lady Bird: You give me a number for how much it cost to raise me, and I’m going to get older and make a lot of money and write you a check for what I owe you so that I NEVER HAVE TO SPEAK TO YOU AGAIN.
Marion: Well I highly doubt that you’ll be able to get a job good enough to do that.
The scene’s emotional bookend comes later in the film, when Lady Bird’s defenses crater and she breaks down to her mother after a boyfriend proves dishonest. Marion offers to take her to do their favorite shared weekend activity: attending open houses in affluent neighborhoods, playing the roles of prospective upwardly-mobile homebuyers.
The breezy scene that follows—where Lady Bird and Marion shake hands with realtors and visualize where furniture would go in the sun-filled, cavernous homes—could read as depressing. There’s an air of yearning as Marion lingers alone in a designer kitchen of a home she and the audience know will never be hers. But I interpreted it as hitting a note of bittersweet joy: It’s one of the few times in the film we see the duo genuinely enjoying each other’s company, a moment of harmony they achieve through a shared dream of eventually arriving at the promise of middle class comfort.
Lady Bird is coming of age in a time when social mobility is an increasingly rare phenomenon; where kids who are born poor tend to stay that way their whole lives and pass that inheritance along to their children. The movie also takes place between 2002 to 2003, a moment where everything around you felt precarious: 9/11 is still at the forefront of the nation’s hearts and minds, the country has invaded Iraq for reasons that wouldn’t become more clear until 15 years later, and the financial crash is just around the corner—all underscoring the listlessness Lady Bird acutely feels in her own life but doesn’t yet have the vocabulary to extrapolate to the world beyond herself.
But in that beautiful moment, the realtor and the recessed lighting and granite countertops fade away, and we’re left watching the joy of a mother and her daughter. Lady Bird still has the luxury of time, that non-renewable resource which teenagers waste and possess in vast, seemingly endless reserves. She positively hums with enough force of personality and hope that, even after her final (or is it first?) selfless act of re-dedicating herself to the things that are really most important in life at the close of the film, we’re left knowing she will flourish—even if that success doesn’t come in the form of material wealth.
It echoes a throwaway piece of motherly advice Lady Bird half-heard earlier in the film, when Marion sagely advised that money “isn’t life’s report card.” As Lady Bird, and plenty of other daughters, come to belatedly realize, your mother was right all along. Listen to her.