In Lady Bird, mother-daughter angst takes centre stage

The complicated bond between mothers and daughters often goes unexplored or ends up misrepresented in cinema, but two new films – Lady Bird and I, Tonya – put it front and centre

Feature by Katie Goh | 16 Feb 2018

Movie mothers haven’t had an easy ride. They’re either pushed out of frame, dismissed as unimportant, or portrayed as monstrous villains, à la Piper Laurie's bible-bashing matriarch in Carrie. While the likes of Rosemary’s Baby and The Babadook examine the anxieties of motherhood, few films depict relationships between mothers and their growing daughters, and fewer yet show what this messy and complex relationship is actually like.

The first shot of Greta Gerwig’s latest feature Lady Bird is of a mother and daughter sharing a motel room bed, asleep, facing one another. The next is of the mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), carefully making the bed, pressing the sheets into place. “That’s not your job,” says the daughter, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), frustrated at her mother’s efforts to make things neat.

Lady Bird is a bildungsroman about Christine, or Lady Bird as she asks to be called, who’s in her last year of high school in California. Her gaze is distant; more than anything she wants to go to college on the East Coast, “where culture is, like New York, or Connecticut, or New Hampshire.” She says this to her mother on their drive back to Sacramento. “I can’t believe I raised such a snob,” says Marion. “You wouldn’t get into those schools anyway.” “MOM?!” comes the incredulous reply.

A car journey that starts with the women chuckling and teary-eyed after finishing The Grapes of Wrath on audiotape ends with a screaming match and Lady Bird throwing herself out of the moving car. As a result, she wears a cast, on which she's sharpied “FUCK YOU MOM”, for most of the film.

That’s the dynamic between mothers and daughters. Marion and Lady Bird are like magnets that simultaneously attract and repel one another. One minute they’re at each other’s throats – “You are SO INFURIATING!” – and the next they’re gushing over a prom dress they find buried on a thrift store rail – “Oh, it’s perfect!”

It takes a lifetime to understand the relationship between mothers and daughters. It’s one that’s so deeply felt yet hinges dangerously on a knife’s edge between need and tension, devotion and rage, and tends to tip over one way. It’s not until adulthood that you begin to appreciate the balancing act.

Lady Bird does not want to be like her mother. When Marion isn’t at work, she’s at home caring for her family, and when she’s not at home, she’s caring for her patients. She has no artistic aspirations, or, more likely, has had to give them up. Lady Bird doesn’t want to think about the mundane things her mom has to consider, like if an extra towel is going to throw off her washing load. She wants to be selfish, perform and leave sleepy Sacramento behind. She doesn’t want to get stuck caring, like Marion.

Lady Bird’s frustration towards her mother is rooted in this desire to not become her – she is emphatic about this. As she prepares to leave the nest Marion has painstakingly made for her, both mother and daughter overreact to everything the other does; it’s easier to live with stubborn anger than to show vulnerability.

Mothers can’t win. If they’re housewives, they’re frustrating and silly, but if they leave their duty of care to pursue personal aspirations, they’re irresponsible monsters.

I, Tonya’s mother is a monster. Played by Allison Janney, Lavona Golding is a mean woman. The abuse she inflicts on her daughter, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), begins with hazing in an attempt to make her skate better and escalates into psychological torture and physical violence.

The dysfunction between Tonya and Lavona is a wild escalation of Lady Bird and her mother’s relationship, but both have similar roots. Economic circumstances being the main link, with both Lavona and Marion using money as a hold over their daughters. The women work morning, noon, and night to give their offspring what they never had: a private school for Lady Bird, skating lessons for Tonya. They see their children as lacking their work ethic – “the way you don’t work you’re not even worth state tuition,” says Marion; “every penny I make, every penny, goes to your skating and you weren’t even fucking trying,” says Lavona.

We internalise how we’re raised, both the good and the bad, and pass it on to our own children. As Philip Larkin so eloquently put it: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” Marion’s mother was an abusive alcoholic and could well have been exactly like Lavona.

Lavona gets no redemption by the end of I, Tonya. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Allison Janney said that the film’s writer, Steven Rodgers, based her character on Tonya’s account of her because they couldn’t find the real life Lavona. As we age, our perspectives of our mothers change. Understandably for Tonya, her mother will always remain the abusive antagonist from her childhood. It’s undoubtedly a skewed representation and she remains a monster right until the end.

However, Lady Bird’s perspective of her mother does change. At the end of Gerwig’s film, she discusses an essay with one of the teachers at the Catholic school she attends. “You clearly love Sacramento,” says Sister Sarah Joan, “you write about it with so much affectation and care.”

“I was just describing it,” shrugs off Lady Bird, “I guess I pay attention.”

“Don’t you think maybe they’re the same thing? Love and attention?” suggests the Sister.

Lady Bird inherits this loving attention to detail from her mother. We see Marion watching over a sleeping Lady Bird, sewing her prom dress into the night, picking her up, and quietly fretting while folding her clothes away.

The strange and possessive relationship between mothers and daughters is hard to explain. Lady Bird’s success has been largely due to the careful love and attention paid by Gerwig in depicting this relationship that moves from an oblique and anguished inability to understand each other, to a deeply felt empathy. It’s a love story for the ages.

Lady Bird is released 16 Feb by Universal
I, Tonya is released 23 Feb by Entertainment One