The number of movies, TV shows and books that attempt to show the transition from high school to college is too large to count. It is always the same story, with most depictions relying on one-dimensional or thematically exhausted protagonists. Then Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig, came out of nowhere and reminded me of the power of authentic characters. Gerwig’s characters stepped outside of stereotypes, not fitting into villain or hero because in actuality, people don’t fit into those roles so easily.
It felt different as soon as the movie opened with a Joan Didion quote about California. Admittedly, as a California native that attended an all-girls Catholic high school, I might be a bit biased. And much like Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, I yearned to find my perception of culture which in my high school mind was really only present in New York (I was less sold on Connecticut than Lady Bird). However, my experience also makes me an honest critic who is able understand the small nuances that would render Lady Bird inauthentic.
Catholic school in movies has been depicted with seemingly out-of-touch teachers and strict priests or nuns. To many people, a repression of individuality seems to be at home among the uniformity of plaid skirts and cardigans. But Lady Bird shows an atmosphere that is closer to the type of school I experienced: one full of friendship, love and a catered pizza lunch with a DJ. Even speaking to my friends at Cornell who attended all-girls Catholic schools anywhere from California to D.C., we agreed it’s a misunderstood experience. Girls had interests ranged from theater to dance to coding, no matter the length of the skirt or the car they drove. But it isn’t just the students who are actualized in the movie.
Throughout the course of the film, a priest and a nun are fully human with well-developed characterization. Fr. Leviatch is the drama teacher priest who suffers from depression. His emotions are at the forefront of his personality, adding depth that surpasses his role as a teacher or even as a priest. Sr. Sarah Joan (who is obsessed with Kierkegaard’s love poems) laughs after Lady Bird adds a “Just married to Jesus sign” to her car. She chooses not to punish Lady Bird; instead, she acknowledges the humor and creativity present in the act.
Lady Bird has the difficult job of being spectacular while being simple. It may not be the sweeping typical Oscar movie but it does not mean it is not significant. It does something even more difficult by making something all of us know and experience into a film that feels honest. It is with this simplicity that writer director Greta Gerwig explores rejection, acceptance, love and attention. Most importantly, she finds the love built into the complex relationship between mothers and daughters.
Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother sits at the center of the film and shows that the relationship between a mother and daughter is one that is not understood nor often shown accurately. I first saw this film with my sister and mom over Thanksgiving break which ended up creating a perfect storm of tears and laughter. We all felt the authenticity in a very raw way as seen in the conversations within the movie between mothers and daughters.
These heated exchanges can be tense but then quickly de-escalate at the sight of a cute dress or an old family friend. Regardless of how independent girls become, a mother’s approval will always hold weight even when we don’t want it to. Gerwig understands that it takes maturity as a daughter to truly realize the sacrifices and hardships moms make in order for their children to have a better life.
In one pivotal exchange, Lady Bird says she just wishes her mom would like her. Lady Bird’s mom responds, saying of course she loves her but that she just wants her to be the best version of herself she can be. Let’s just say the exchange doesn’t go over very well. This “typical mom answer” made me laugh because it’s not the answer a daughter wants to hear but it’s the honest one moms will give. Mom is a cheerleader and a sparring partner, but also the person we turn to when we want to cry or when we fail to see the power we have within ourselves.
It is apparent that Lady Bird felt suffocated from the expectations of her mother, her appearance, and even her hometown. I grew up with a single mom in California and an older sister who was and still is my best friend. We went to the same Catholic schools and were in the same activities, but much like Lady Bird, I wanted a place filled with culture that I could call my own. Now as a junior at Cornell, I have come to realize that it’s okay to love where you come from. I am more thankful than ever for my family, especially my mom who has always supported me to become the best version of myself I can be. As the tower bells toll in the distance, I appreciate Lady Bird for putting into actuality some of my experiences, making me laugh, cry and feel an even greater sense of love for both my new home in New York and my forever home in California.
Ashley Davila is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached [email protected]. Guest Rooms run periodically this semester.