Fly Away Home: Idealism and Empathy in Lady Bird

Early on in Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Marion McPherson and her daughter Christine, the titular Lady Bird, played respectively by Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan, share a brief moment of silence on a car ride back home from visiting prospective colleges. It’s a moment that comes after a teary catharsis brought on by listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape together.

The silence is quickly disrupted when the daughter insists on turning on the radio a mere instant after the audiotape ends. The mother suggests that they wait and sit with what they have just listened to, much to her daughter’s dismay. Without a hint of irony, Lady Bird responds with “I wish I could live through something,” a statement as loaded as it is vague. It causes her mother to perceive her daughter as melodramatic and ungrateful, criticizing her poor work ethic and propelling them into an argument that is equal parts scathing and humorous. And just like that, the battle lines are drawn while setting the film’s tone, one of honesty and empathy in regards to the places and relationships that sustain us to become the people that we are, even if we’re reluctant to admit it.

Artwork by Kreg Franco


Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is a high school senior at an all girls Catholic school who enjoys partaking in activities like DIY dying her hair red, running for class president every year as an ongoing joke, and snacking on non-consecrated communion wafers with her best friend, Julie. Her head is constantly somewhere else, perhaps thinking about the expensive East Coast schools that she secretly plans to apply to against her mother’s wishes. Lady Bird is riddled with contradictions, simultaneously charming and contrived, empathetic and selfish, embodied with messy grace by a phenomenal Ronan. She forces those around her, peers and priests alike, to call her Lady Bird, a name “given to [her], by [her],” an identity she bestows on herself to prove that she is somehow bigger than her current circumstances, but also to conceal her insecurities that she may somehow not be enough as herself. She is a character who is never entirely present in her own life and surroundings. Instead, she’s bent on the promise of the grandiose with nostalgia for a time and place in which she wasn’t born. The film highlights her inability to see those in her life as they actually are, an ability astutely showcased by Gerwig from both behind the camera and on the page.

In presenting her characters with such care and empathy, Gerwig skillfully does what many of her contemporaries and Lady Bird herself cannot: that is, see and present the people and the lives she depicts as they actually are. Take, for example, Danny, played with such likable pathos by Lucas Hedges, the Irish Catholic golden boy from the right side of the tracks that Lady Bird pursues at the film’s outset. Her bold progression into romance begins when she sees him on stage, performing a less than perfect rendition of Sondheim’s “Giants in the Sky,” which serves as reason enough for her to write his name on the wall above her bed in permanent marker. The progression of their relationship goes on like a John Hughes film: they share a dance and a kiss at the homecoming hoedown and even act alongside each other in the school’s production of Merrily We Along. But this is when Gerwig so astutely pulls the rug from underneath Lady Bird and the audience. The relationship that we’ve seen play out has been a fantasy of sorts in the heroine’s mind, meaning that the Danny she’s fallen in love with is only a projection of her own desires onto him. When she catches him kissing a fellow male costar in a bathroom stall, the fantasy is shattered, causing Lady Bird to cry with Julie in her car while earnestly mouthing the lyrics to “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band. It’s a moment filled with such understandable heartbreak readily balanced with underlying humor. With such a moment of adolescent melodrama, Gerwig never presents her characters in a way that feels mocking or derivative, but only does so earnestly, similar perhaps to seeing one’s own personal turmoil presented on a large screen.

It is only when Danny comes to visit Lady Bird a few months later to make amends that she gets to see him as he really is for the first time. When she explicitly argues that he is indeed gay, he offers no resistance, only admitting to her how difficult it will be to come out to his family and how ashamed he is of himself. In hopes to convince him that she will not tell anyone and to prove to him that everything will be alright, Lady Bird embraces a crying Danny, anxieties and all. It’s a moment of sheer empathy where both the heroine and the audience are able to see him as he truly is. It’s a moment of compassion that serves as a reminder of the way in which we project our own desires and impressions of people onto them rather than open ourselves to who they actually are.

Similarly, this inability to see what is directly present before one’s eyes is what defines the emotional core of the film that lies in the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother. When we are first introduced to matriarch Marion McPherson apart from her daughter, she is shown driving home following an overnight double shift at the psychiatric hospital to keep her family’s finances afloat after her husband, played to a T by Tracy Letts, gets laid off from his job. Before the day’s stresses and frustrations can catch up to her, Marion is shown finding solace on her drive home, one that takes her through the bridges and streets of the Sacramento neighborhoods she’s known for years, all impeccably tinted by the morning sun. In presenting the character in this way, the audience is given a glimpse into the life and interiority of the mother in a way that is not available to her daughter, allowing the film to organically present the idea that parents are first human beings, with hopes and concerns of their own that encompass and go beyond their children. Much of this characterization comes not only from Gerwig’s deft script, but is also a testament to the deeply affecting, nuanced, and heartbreaking performance that Metcalf brings to the screen as Marion. It is at times staggering to see the range of emotion that she puts forth as one who so unconditionally loves her daughter, even when her care and affection do not always come across in the most endearing ways. The root of their conflict stems from their respectively mutual inability to see each other and each other’s intentions as they are. It’s a relationship fraught with heart and misunderstanding, one in which care is often perceived as criticism, resulting in one of the most realistic depictions of a mother and daughter relationship on screen.

Near the film’s end, Lady Bird meets with her counselor, Sister Sarah Joan, played by a delightful Lois Smith, to discuss her college admissions essay. When Sarah Joan mentions that she was touched by Lady Bird’s affective descriptions of Sacramento, the heroine expresses slight confusion and, in an attempt to not be argumentative, responds with “I guess I pay attention,” her words reflected in a shrug of the shoulders. At this, Sarah Joan relates love to attention, that to pay attention to something is to love it. Like many of the film’s scenes, this one is tenderly tucked away and presented with care as an unassuming moment that causes the viewer to pause and revel in its honesty. The home that is fading from Lady Bird’s view as she prepares to leave for college is one that she has unconsciously been paying attention to her whole life, taking it for granted in the process, like the ways in which we take the people in our lives and the places we inhabit for granted, perceiving them as infallible caricatures and concepts rather than with the flaws and complexity they actually possess.

Gerwig has said in interviews that her film is one that deviates from the movie that her heroine thinks that she is in, an endearingly simple statement that encapsulates the magic of the movie, and perhaps why it succeeds so well as it does. Too often, we, like Lady Bird, perceive the world differently than it appears, an over-idealized solipsistic state of affairs that feels far away from us as though our actual lives should be happening in a place beyond our immediate reach. Gerwig’s film then is an honest and moving portrait about the expectations we inhabit, the spaces we leave behind, the identities we select for ourselves, and how they can only come into view as we’re leaving them. A reminder of the life happening around us at any given time, if only we would just look.