“Lady Bird” and the Economics of Love

Lady Bird is a film which should be seen by anybody who has a complicated relationship with their parents/children, which includes almost everybody. At its heart is the troubled relationship between Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf). Despite this filial relationship, it’s probably best to understand this film as it relates to economics and exchange.

This movie follows Christine’s (I will use Lady Bird’s real name since she reprises it at the end) senior year of high school, her journey into young adulthood, and her difficult family life. But it’s also about growing up poor in Sacramento. In particular, the family’s economic insecurity takes a toll on everyone involved. Larry McPherson (Tracy Letts), the father of this family, is out of work and on antidepressants. Marion is working double shifts as a nurse. Miguel McPherson, Christine’s brother, outcompetes his father to land a programming job, an experience that must have been singularly unpleasant. Miguel’s girlfriend, Shelly Yuhan (Marielle Scott), lives with the McPhersons on a sofa mattress after her parents kick her out for having premarital sex. As cash-strapped as the family is, Marion has no quarrels about taking Shelly in. She’d be homeless otherwise. But as the family’s breadwinner, all this must burden Marion greatly.

Marion has a habit of seeing almost everything in terms of utility and economics. She wants what’s best for Christine, but her focus on money often constrains what that is. Christine wants something more out of her life than what Marion believes is economically feasible or practical. But at the same time, Christine is a teenager who is unsure about what direction she wants her life to take. She wants to be successful but doesn’t have a goal. She wants to go to college, but her only real requirement for a possible college is that it be on the east coast. In other words, she’s a teenager — one who doesn’t mind knowing she still hasn’t figured everything out. Marion’s and Christine’s strong personalities often chafe and bicker about what is right for the latter’s future.

Probably the most interesting part of this dynamic is how often and casually these characters collide. It doesn’t happen in just one scene; it’s always in the room when both characters appear. Their fighting is so commonplace that the minutiae of daily life can easily change the subject. Arguing is just part of how they operate on a regular basis.

From Marion’s perspective, Christine owes here parents love, affection, trust, and gratitude. From Christine’s perspective, Marion owes her love, affection, faith, and support. Many of these relational qualities are frustrated throughout the course of the movie. This tense frustration is the film’s main selling point. Chances are people are not always going to agree with another person all the time. Everybody inevitably encounters people with starkly different views, mindsets, and histories. Even with that divide, deep affection and love can reside and be maintained (if the other person isn’t scared away first).

Marion has a lot of love for her daughter, but she often fails to show affection. This partially fosters the combative relationship between herself and Christine. On Christine’s part, she often fails to express her gratitude and her love for her mother. These relational failures on both sides create memorable and painful scenes of daily life. In one scene, for example, Christine asks for a dollar amount on how much Marion thinks she owes her for raising her, promising to pay it all back someday. Marion replies that she does not think Christine could get a job that pays well enough for her to do so. Despite these pains, their relationship is maintained. Neither one can outright forsake the other contrasting sharply with the way Shelly’s parents washed their hands of her.

Christine’s and Marion’s attitudes are certainly understandable. It can be hard to show gratitude when you feel like there’s a dollar amount above your head slowly climbing upwards. Likewise, it can be difficult to see a person you love so much drift towards a fate that could lead to misery (e.g. poverty). These feelings can be downright painful. But the movie does not conclude with this heartache. Christine gets what she wants. She leaves Sacramento, with a troubled heart from leaving the home she loves, and flies to New York City to attend NYU. Marion writes dozens of drafts expressing her feelings towards Christine with the intention of giving one of them to her before she leaves. She didn’t. Marion does not give her daughter one of her letters for fear of judgment. Her dad decided it would be best to pack them in her luggage.

Christine arrives in New York City with tangible proof of her mother’s affections. This emotion is often frustrated and complicated by economic concerns, with this one exception. It leads Christine to reclaim her name and brings her some measure of peace.

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