It’s 11:00 AM on a Tuesday. I’m all alone, crying. It’s like I’m in a movie, the scene a suitably curated, cinematic kind of depressing. Several old people are dotted around the place. It’s the kind of room where idleness and meaninglessness linger comfortably, but right now I’m not really aware of that – I’m just crying in a movie theatre, alone.
Let’s be clear – it wasn’t hard for me to watch Lady Bird and cry. This wasn’t anything to do with empathy; I just related to it. On a stretch of wall, Lady Bird took my life and painted it in incredible detail with big red letters, because the girl in this movie is me. She is just me. Well, me if I was thin, and white, and had a face for film, having grown up in Sacramento with enough charisma as a High School senior to carry the plot of a feature film. Okay, so not ‘just’ me. But there are things about her that are me. Hauntingly, cathartically me.
In fact, she’s not just me. She’s every girl ever:
ONE: She lost her virginity to a boy named Kyle, who constantly murmured Marxist platitudes at her, and finished in 20 seconds. And it wasn’t a big deal, but it also was, and it wasn’t amazing, but the beginning was, and she didn’t really feel anything for him, but a few minutes after it was over, she got into her Mum’s car and started bawling. And the whole thing had this incredible weight and was a complete atrocity against the sacredness of the human body. But it was also, like, totally fine.
TWO: She’s every girl ever because she, while conscious of how ridiculous it was, ditched her best-friend for the cool kids, the kind of people who were detached and deep, promising a new world of experience and creativity, but with whom she didn’t really connect.
THREE: She’s every girl ever because she applied to colleges, bought her prom-dress, and built her dreams, both with and without thinking about whether her family could afford it, both with and without caring immensely.
Sure, there are lots of coming of age films about sex and dreams and the cool-kids. I want to get on to how this girl echoed ‘me’ in such a profound way that my brain rang like a bell every time a new unexpected parallel appeared on screen:
ONE: She got nosebleeds regularly (once during sex).
TWO: Her impulse the morning after her first night of surprisingly lonely drunkenness at university was to duck into a Catholic church because it reminded her of home.
BUT MOSTLY: Her most intense, most taken-for-granted relationship was with her mother. Sifting through thrift shops together, mother tells Lady Bird to stop dragging her feet. Lady Bird knows that it’s not really about the dragging of the feet. It’s about obedience, its about power. But Lady Bird also knows that it really is about the dragging of the feet, about how this minute habit is just one of the ways two personalities rub each other the wrong way. They argue about a particularly risqué dress (is it avant-garde or just trashy?), the argument turning into this whole annoying exchange about whether or not a certain comment counts as body-shaming.
And suddenly I’m not watching Sacramento, but the clothing isle in a Tesco. It’s my first trip to Tesco, and we’re there because it’s going to be my first winter in the UK, and my mum’s made the calculation that thermal underwear would be cheaper here.
It keeps going, keeps interlocking, like this. Mother and Lady Bird are waiting for Danny to arrive to take Lady Bird to his Grandma’s thanksgiving dinner in the nicer houses across town. Mother is in that place where she knows that Lady Bird is a young girl, that this is her first boyfriend, and that the house is really very nice, but she also resents Lady Bird for wanting to spend Thanksgiving with another family, when there’s so much pain and obligation to be work through at home. The whole of this scene is coloured by the one before, where Mother is up in the dead of night, sewing the thrift shop dress in all her hurt and understanding, her wounded energy thrusting into the WRRRRRH of the sewing machine. The pink lace falls away to reveal a creamy black dress, ready for graduation. Mother, my mother, is also at the sewing machine, having heard news of her own mother’s hospitalisation. She has to fly to see her the next day, needing me to go with her, but also wanting me to stay, to say goodbye to this school and this country and this period of my life. She wants the creamy dress to fit just right, and in the end it does, but all the prettiness in the world won’t shift the atmosphere of awkward resentment the photos outside are taken in the next morning, albeit mixed with a feeling of inexpressible love.
The platitude that would explain this most legibly would be to say: ‘Perhaps they love each other, but they don’t like each other.’ Or a slightly better one maybe would be to say: ‘Perhaps attention is love’.
Attention is love. All those moments of cruelty are the product of an intense closeness. The result of a mortal embrace of domestic, everyday life between a mother and a daughter who completely understand each other, but just can’t stand each other.
It was the sensitive details that started the crying. Sensitive details like the way in which this mother’s face quivered not only on the edge of tears, but also on the edge of a quip or a smile or a laugh. The natural face-state for this intensely sociable mother-matriarch, whose natural state is to dive into life, to have boundless energy without even thinking about it – to terrify her daughter’s boyfriends, but also to doll out empathy to all her friends. She dolls out empathy to everyone – from her depressed husband to the local check-out clerk. From her son with the banking job sapping his soul to her company colleagues, who use her as private marriage counselling. This is why Lady Bird’s mother is a nurse.
Towards the end of the movie, in the wake of the movie’s longest mother–to-daughter silence, Lady Bird, having applied to NYU in secret, asks her dad:
‘Are you and mum going to get a divorce?’
Dad laughs, and he says.
‘(Oh honey,) We couldn’t afford it.’
The silence settles. Young and sweet, Lady Bird is yet to see with the same obviousness as he does that the thunderstorms of this particular family, however long and loud (or silent), cannot not shake its foundations:
‘No,’ he assures her, ‘I love your mother.’
But this film isn’t about dad. Dad is tragic, harmless and depressed, but it is not about him. It’s about a mother and daughter. It’s Frankenstein, if Frankenstein had no men. It is about the way the maternal creator, the fierce provider, struggles endlessly with what she’s made – an educated, literate, fierce, fragile, beautiful girl on the cusp of adulthood. A reflection of herself, refracted through the privileges of ease, youth, and a love of culture. All the gifts she gave her.
At the end of the movie, Lady Bird leaves without getting a word out of her mother. When she arrives in her New York apartment, she opens up an envelope, given to her by her dad, and in it are these crumpled attempts by her mother to write her a goodbye letter.
‘She wanted to let you know how much she loved you, but she didn’t really know how… she didn’t want you to judge her writing.’
This is the thing, Dad. The love is known, the love is implied, even often expressed. The obviousness of that love is so often confronted on those charity-shop trips that it becomes an annoyance, even a weapon (‘Why do you hate me?’ ‘You know I love you.’). But the love is not acknowledged with the kind of sincerity demanded by writing. It is not a love made beautiful by words and form. Here’s the thing Mum and Dad: I am not smart enough or old enough or big enough to communicate my love to you in words – I am trapped by my age. I feel endlessly, but I can’t communicate. I can say things like:
The sad vulnerability of the mother being afraid of the daughter she has created, and afraid of her ‘judging her writing’, is part of the tender, tragic strangeness of their kind of the Frankensetien-love, the love engendered by the parent’s striving to create a better life for their child.
I can say that, and I think that it is true.
But I can’t communicate my love to you.