How Greta Gerwig's 'Lady Bird' Saved My Relationship With My Mother

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get personal, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: how the new film Lady Bird helped one writer salvage his relationship with his mother.)Greta Gerwig's new movie, Lady Bird, opens in theaters tomorrow. It's a stunning piece of work, beautifully felt, ambitious both in its scope and intimacy, with striking performances from Saorsie Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. Also, the film may have saved my relationship with my own mother. But we'll get there. In a moment. Because our personal connections with the movies require context. They require as to sort through our baggage. And I have baggage to spare.

This article contains minor spoilers for Lady Bird, but none that will detract from your appreciation of the film.

Two Road Trips

From Commercial Street in Provincetown, at the end of the world, to 6th Avenue in Brooklyn is a seven hour drive. Packed to bursting, my friend Johnny and I spent the trip playing 20 questions, listening to music, wondering when sweet death would take us. When we landed and unpacked, the cool autumn breeze and the streets lined with overprice bourgeois restaurants felt like a welcoming. I only told a few people of my relocation, an almost on-the-whim decision made in the summer of 2016, instead opting to drop it randomly with a "bloop" on Facebook. The post's privacy was set to custom so that one person couldn't see the announcement.

From East Hampton to West Hartford, the trip is 40 minutes, and it was spent listening to the radio. The radio station of dad rock was at a sound level that made the doors of the pickup truck tremble. Small talk was made. The strained conversation still haunts me. It was the kind of conversation where every word spoken had the subtext of awareness from both parties that this time was relatively agonizing for me. "Are you excited?", he asked. "I think of when my kids will start," he mused. Trapped with my belongings and a man I barely liked, in a state that had long soured in my mind, I hated every moment of it. I imagined all of the cars within our perimeter on that highway keeping a safe distance from the pickup truck because of the palpability of that awkwardness.

40 minutes seemed to stretch itself, like a New England set Bela Tarr film, slower than slow. My driver was Bennett, in his forties. He was tasked unofficially with providing some sort of paternal support without actually knowing me very well, and it felt odd given our inherent differences. He was a handyman, good with tools, had a barking laugh and a somewhat brusque joviality; I was bookish, as yet self actualized queer with a naive sense of good self-regard common in university freshmen, and, when opportunity was presented, rambled about movies as a way to distract from the unending weirdness of any given scenario.

The only thing that Bennett and I had in common was my mother. He was a gruff, mid-period Stanley Kowalski-esque (still Brando, but his most blue collar role) handyman that, since my father's death four years earlier, always seemed to be around. Allegedly, he was there fixing things which, in my mind, happened to include my mother's emotional well being. She was a mess. I was also a mess; wearing the shell of someone who wanted to be okay. When both of us were in the same room, we were ticking time bombs, each ready to set off the other.

Our relationship was so that my mother never brought me to college on any of my "first days." She said she was at work. She didn't want to start something, she said. She thought it was for the best, she said. I hated her for that. Well, I already hated her, but I especially hated how often our attempts to reconcile failed. We were two trains leaving at different times, headed in opposite directions, passing by each other at the station. I hated that she would not give us this day to have, whether or not it was really for the better. It felt like we were always giving up on the other, when one of us was ready to try again. I wanted to take that chance that day. With my belongings in the back, a load of nonsense and physical media with the supposed purpose to fill an inarticulable void, I just wanted to sit in the truck in silence, Bennett at the wheel. I wanted to focus on pushing out of my mind that, on my first day of college, I would be one of the only people whose parent would not be bringing them to school. In that moment, I thought that me and my mother had already lost each other.

I spent too much time being resentful and hateful, letting emotional scar tissue take over my life, while I lived in Connecticut. Too much time using my adoption as the source of difference. I sometimes wonder if I'll ever be able to get enough distance from Connecticut to ever not shit talk it in mixed company at work parties. I have spent a lot of time hating my mother. As if my life was divided into three periods, the first one being defined by the closeness of our relationship, the second by the tempestuousness and toxicity, and the third reconciling with what that all meant, trying to recover and heal. The third is a scar turned to weeping wound, pleading to be treated.

I looked for hope in movies.

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A Movie Trilogy About Us

Writer/director Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird caps a trilogy of films (Xavier Dolan's I Killed My Mother/Mommy and Mike Mills' 20th Century Women before it) that can't help but feel like they're about my mother and about our relationship. Or maybe it's like the third step into finally being willing to try again. The duality of painful recognition is wearing, but important, I suppose.

Lady Bird is about hoping to heal, amongst other things. It's in the film's veins, as we watch Saoirse Ronan as the title character mess up, fall in love, have her heart broken, be in a Sondheim musical, hate her life, love her life, hate her town, skip class with her best friend, get a new best friend, pay attention to her town, love her dad, hate her mother, love her mother, and have her heart broken by her mother. But her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), has a broken heart, too.

"I just want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be," Marion tells her daughter, her voice just short of cracking. How else to get through to someone when they both do and do not listen to one another. "What if this is the best version?" Lady Bird asks her mother, as if peeling back the armor over her heart. Marion looks at Lady Bird, as if that's ridiculous. They both crack, as Lady Bird hangs her head and returns to the dressing room, closing the door, with little else to say.

Marion's honest, sharply so. She has doubts about her daughter, angsty, sporting a lazy pink dye job, the lack of polish emblematic of Lady Bird's defiance.

Lady Bird and Marion's relationship is defined by, as the father says, their "strong personalities," with conversation swinging easily from argument to passive aggression to adoration and back again. A feeling of deep inadequacy permeates these exchanges, both thinking they've failed the other.

Lady Bird didn't tell her mother that she was grateful, and she didn't tell her she applied to school in New York. Marion didn't tell her daughter of the dreams she set aside to raise a family, or how hurt she would be if her daughter flew away.

Lady Bird is not brought to the airport gate to New York by her mother. Marion does not see her daughter to the airport gate to New York.

The camera sits in front of Marion as she drives away for about two minutes. Marion's composure dissolving with each passing second. When she turns around, it's too late.

But Lady Bird finds her mother's letters. And leaves a voice message articulating what had been too hard to do for the past year. With no specific cause as to their dysfunction and no concrete motivation for why they inflict wounds, intentionally and otherwise, upon each other, it makes it all the harder to recover.

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The Pain of Recognition

I can only talk about my mother to people if I compartmentalize it as this amusingly tragic melodrama, our lives and intentions so messy, they resembled a ball of tangled thread, too hard to unweave. But I have constantly wished it were different, that I could casually talk about my mother the way others do with such breathlessness, whether it's adoration or annoyance.

I spent the majority of the Lady Bird press screening sobbing, sobbing in New York where I sometimes I feel like I belong, to the point that someone shushed me. Every barb thrown by Lady Bird and Marion in the other's direction, every missed opportunity for connection, every instance of mutual resentment boiling over. (Sentence perhaps to denote your, 'I feel so seen!' moment so to speak). Laurie Metcalf looks like my mother, accompanied with a similar caustic sense of humor and a no nonsense attitude just like her, too. She's my mother, uncompromising, ready to compare you to other children for the sake of a little bit of gratitude and validation, as if the hard work she put into raising a child (that child being perhaps a little troubled) has not been wasted.

"She's warm, but she's also kind of scary," Danny (Lucas Hedges), Lady Bird's closeted ex, says of Marion. Such words were used to describe my mother by friends in high school. There is as much joy as there is harshness on her face, each line and wrinkle a piece of her history.

There is a scene of Lady Bird and Marion are in a thrift store, Marion criticizing how Lady Bird drags her feet. "You're so infuriating!" Lady Bird quietly screams, with an exploding fury she lets out, the kind that spews without warning, but can then dissipate in seconds. Marion holds up a dress she thinks Lady Bird will like, and that's the water that cools them down momentarily. The transition from argument to tenderness is easy because of how intimate their bond is, even if it's fraught. How many times had my mother and I had the same conversation: a criticism which I read as cruel, unnecessary, a verbal jab back and forth until we found one tiny thing which would settle the inevitable storm? Enough so that scene felt like whiplash. In this film, Greta Gerwig recognizes how hard it all is in learning to be okay with yourself, with being alone, losing someone. Entrenched in this relationship are two people trying to figure out how to situate themselves in relation to each other.

What I saw in Lady Bird, what I felt, really, was the pain of recognition. I saw myself and my mother in Lady Bird and Marion. Sometimes I wish I didn't.

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A Three-Word Text

I cannot tell you how much I wish things were different between us. That we got along and argued like normal people. I wish I did not recognize the pain in Lady Bird so intimately, that it struck so deeply in me as if I were watching my life play out on screen. However "nice" representation is, Lady Bird can be a haunting reminder of how difficult our relationship is. I wonder who else will watch this film and feel as if they've been stripped raw, that each proceeding scene stings.

But maybe I'm not sorry that it hurt so much watching the film. Perhaps I'm thankful that it does pulsate and burn the way it does. I knew during the scene in which Danny comes out to Lady Bird that this was a film of immense tenderness. Because as much sadness and frustration as there is in Lady Bird, there is joy and hope. Lady Bird has gone by that sobriquet throughout the whole film, but she changes her mind at a college party, finally in New York, introducing herself as Christine. She winds up at the hospital with alcohol poisoning. The next morning, she steps into church, overtaken by the majesty inside. She steps outside. She calls home. She wants to hear her mother's voice.

After the film, I texted my mother. "I love you."

Phuong, my best friend, sometimes tells me how strange it is to hear me talk about my mother, how odd it is that the way my mother and I relate to one another is so toxic. That she feels bad for me. I tell her I wish I could be saying that to someone else.

I am constantly wondering who I am in the eye of other people, and I assume I am disappointing them or alienating them. I don't know whether I want to be someone for myself, or someone crafted to some degree in respect to others, and I wonder what it would be like being someone for my mother instead of spending as many years as I have arrogantly eschewing those expectations. And I wonder what my father would think.

Fly Away Home

I was predisposed to like Lady Bird, as I have been enamored of Gerwig's work in Frances Ha and Mistress America for a while now. Frances Ha, in particular, is the film that I share with people I love. I think about that film's ability in capturing uncertainty and loneliness. The mess in trying to figure out how to live as yourself and who that is. If Frances Ha is about regret and uncertainty about some of the things you've already done, and some of the ways in which you've become who you are, then Lady Bird is about the anxiety of the future and the person who you may become. They are mirror images of one another, and and I feel trapped between them, an infinity room of anxiety, regret, melancholy.

I did not tell my mother I was moving to New York. She found out about a month after I had been living there. I didn't have plans to tell her I was queer, it came out in an argument in a car. I wish I had told her sooner, or I wish I felt that we had a relationship where I could have told her in the first place.

Would I have recognized this much in Gerwig's work, in Lady Bird, had my father not died? Who would have taken me to school then? It wouldn't have been the handyman whose facile paternal responsibilities were dropped in his lap, would it?

But maybe Greta Gerwig has saved my relationship with my mother.

Later that week, my mother and I spoke on the phone for two hours, the first time in several years. We talked about my job, politics, new movies, writing. We talked about her life in North Carolina, and mine in New York. She said she was proud of me. We said we missed each other. She said she was happy that I was happy in New York.

I want to take her to see the film. I hope she comes and visits.

Maybe getting mired in resentment and hatred kept me trapped. Maybe as we both let go and heal, I can finally fly away home.

I wanted to hear her voice. And she wanted to hear mine.


Lady Bird opens on November 3, 2017. You can read our review from the New York Film Festival right here.