Lady Bird: A Review
by Alvin G. Burstein
Lady Bird is a coming of age story, a bildungsroman. We follow its protagonist, a teen-ager discontent with herself and her situation, beset with a vague yearning to change her life
and herself, as she struggles to free herself from what she feels confining her. The film opens with an epigraph displayed on the screen: Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento. That is where Lady Bird lives, and, moreover, on the wrong side of the tracks. Living with her are her father who is unsuccessful in fending off unemployment, her critical and controlling mother who works double shifts as she scrabbles to make ends meet, a brother, who is tattooed and decked with body piercings, and the brother’s live-in girlfriend.
Lady Bird dreams of becoming someone, leaving home, going to an Ivy League college. Her grades, alas, are mediocre and its financial demands overwhelming. She steals looks at a classmate’s paper during a math exam and hooks the instructor’s grade book so that she can finagle a B in the class. She lies to classmates about where she lives, representing her home as being in an upscale neighborhood. She steals fashion magazines that she cannot afford to buy.
The film is a brilliant debut effort by Greta Gerwig, who wrote the story and directed the film. Gerwig leavens the grimness of Lady Bird’s struggle with genuinely comic elements. The
director makes the young girl sympathetic—no, loveable— because of her wit, her self-awareness, and the universal and urgent nature of her adolescent struggles with self-esteem.
The film opens with Lady Bird riding with her mother in an auto while they listen to a recording of The Grapes of Wrath, an elegant bit of foreshadowing. That book ends with the mother of the Oakie family shooing the men away and supporting her daughter, whose infant child has just died, to nurse—literally— an elderly starving man. The novel ends with a reference to the daughter’s “mysterious smile.”
Lady Bird and her mother both weep as the reading ends, but begin to squabble when Lady Bird wants to move on to another tape. The fighting escalates, and the daughter jumps out of the moving car, breaking her arm.
A 1989 publication by the SUNY Freud Museum, Sigmund Freud and Art, cataloguing and describing Freud’s collection, contains a chapter by Ellen Handler Spitz, Psychoanalysis and
the Legacy of Antiquities. Spit draws our attention to the head of Demeter owned by Freud, and reminds us of the story of Demeter, the goddess of harvest and of the cycle of birth and
death, and her daughter Persephone. In the Greek myth, Persephone is kidnapped into marriage by the king of the underworld. Demeter, distraught, searches for her lost daughter. When, after much effort, she finds her, only to learn that during her captivity Persephone has swallowed six pomegranate seeds, and thus can only spend half of each year with her mother, returning to the underworld for the other half.
Spitz suggests this tale is as figural for psychoanalysis as is the more famous one of Oedipus, the latter with its emphasis on the tension between fathers and sons. Spitz explores various
interpretations of the Demeter myth and argues for its potential to counterbalance the patriarchal focus in psychoanalytic practice and theory. At a minimum, she sees the Demeter
myth as central in directing our attention to mother-daughter relationships, especially as they relate to issues of birth and loss, and of separation and reunion.
Lady Bird ultimately leaves home and mother. Do they find each other again? Yes and no. You will have to see the film to decide.