For how large the bank holiday looms on the American calendar, there’s frightfully little in the way of Thanksgiving cinema. The distinctly American nature of the holiday makes the emergence of a true Thanksgiving movie even more challenging. Add to that the increasing pressure filmmakers face from financiers to maintain a more cross-cultural appeal within the global market, and it’s increasingly unlikely we will see the holiday get a moment in the cinematic spotlight.
Sure, Planes, Trains & Automobiles gets a lot of TV play around this time of year (and rightfully so), but it’s using Thanksgiving as a looming deadline for two frenzied travelers to get home. Most often in films like Home for the Holidays, The Ice Storm, Pieces of April, and The Oath, the holiday just serves as a convenient backdrop to flare up familial tensions that might arise on any of the year’s other 364 days. No, the truest movie to the spirit of Thanksgiving itself is Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, a film with a narrative tightly coiled around the graceful spine of gratitude.
In her last four screenplays, Gerwig has utilized holidays as a focusing event in her narratives to distill or embody the larger themes of her story. Unlike her co-written script for Mistress America, which closes at Thanksgiving as a form of rapprochement between the two leads, Lady Bird’s Thanksgiving scene comes at a crucial junction midway in the film. In Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, the holiday serves as another blow dealt by Saoirse Ronan’s headstrong Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson when she abandons her family’s dinner to go celebrate with her new boyfriend Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges). She leaves, much to the disappointment of her mercurial mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), foreswearing their humble meal in favor of a lavish feast at what turns out to be her dream house – a place where, according to the description in Gerwig’s script, “it looks like nothing bad would ever happen.”
Lady Bird is already playing a bit of make-believe at the O’Neill gathering, dolled up in a fancy-seeming pink dress to impress her wealthier hosts. But in the duffel bag she totes along with her to the event, there’s yet another outfit change: a put-on hipster look, complete with scarves and berets, to attend a pretentious coffee shop jam session. There, she locks eyes with the brooding bassist Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) and instantly finds herself drawn into a new fantasy fueled by her burgeoning sexual desire. This moment of possibility comes tinged with ruefulness, for she already achieved the long-awaited goal of having a boyfriend and yet cannot be satisfied with what she has.
That giddy pot-fueled rush continues back at her house, where Lady Bird and her fellow stoned pals giggle at the sight of stacked frozen dinners in the microwave. Her mom makes an unexpected entrance, and upon discovering the kind of behavior that normally sparks a quarrel with her daughter, Marion chooses to simply let them be. She’s clearly hurt when she offers her meek farewell, “Well, happy Thanksgiving … we missed you, Lady Bird.” But rather than center her own anger in the moment, she recognizes her daughter as independent from herself with feelings and needs as a person in her own right.
For Lady Bird, her mother represents home – primarily in a negative light. It’s a past and heritage she wishes to shed so badly that she abandons going by Christine, her name at birth. The tension to escape the self she cannot control is evident from the film’s first line when Lady Bird asks her mother, “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?” The question sets up her relentless conviction that by virtue of her willpower, she can outgrow and outshine her past. Marion gently replies, “But you are from Sacramento,” a reminder that no amount of self-presentation can change the immutable facts of her origins.
Marion doesn’t see the shame in her personal, financial, or geographic situation. Gerwig compassionately observes of the character when she’s driving around the Californian capital that “when she’s not resenting the stuckness of her own life she has an enormous capacity to love it.” That contentedness with and in her family is at the very core of Lady Bird’s journey, though she’s loath to admit it as much until her humbling in the film’s tearjerking final scene. She does in fact become her mother – or at least, come to better understand and embrace her unique blend of affection and acidity.
Lady Bird flips the script on the coming-of-age tale. Traditionally, a teenage protagonist embarks on a journey of self-actualization that involves transforming into a new person of their choosing. But Gerwig’s heroine, drawing from her own adolescent awakenings, goes through all the hallmarks and milestones of teenage rebellion only to end up back at herself. The moment of enlightenment comes from realizing the key to her future is within her already. She is already enough just by virtue of being herself.
Christine already has what she needs in the form of a caring family and a devoted best friend, who both love her no matter what her latest mood or obsession is. Over the course of Lady Bird, her process of personal growth slowly opens her eyes to what they see – there’s nothing to change or prove. While Marion is not perfect, due in part to some of the scars from her own abusive alcoholic mother, she’s more possessed of the knowledge that who we are and what we have at the present moment is precious and worthy of celebration … thus her tremendous disappointment on Thanksgiving.
Gerwig doesn’t fault her main character for this myopia. Lady Bird takes great care to expand the lens on an entire ensemble of people striving and struggling alongside her in Sacramento. To escape the pain of the present, the characters seek release inside identities and aspirations that only further estrange them from their essence. She’s part of the larger story of teenagers and adults alike getting themselves into unsatisfying situations because they fear disappointing the ones they love.
The beauty of Lady Bird is that the character’s outsized sense of self-possession and confidence helps others to be vulnerable with her. These unguarded moments they share serve to activate the same sense of care in Christine that Marion wields in her roles as a psychiatric nurse and mother. The tragic irony of Lady Bird is that mother and daughter are perpetually out of sync, rarely sharing a moment of recognizing each other’s shared heart and humanity. “They are able to be so tender to other people, but they have such trouble being tender to each other,” Gerwig observes on the film’s commentary track in a series of juxtaposed scenes of the pair providing comfort to someone who seeks their aid (unbeknownst to the other). “It won’t always be that way, but that’s how it is now.”
But Christine, Marion, and the people around them are not alone in their challenge to find contentment in their circumstances. It’s a distinctly American problem baked into the national mythology of manifest destiny. A country built on a constantly shifting westward frontier always fashions happiness and fulfillment as things looming past the next horizon. Even the McPherson women are not above buying into this tradition, listening to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” on audiobook. But here they are in California, the land of milk and honey of which Dust Bowl migrants dreamed, and Christine still looks for the next frontier.
On the film’s audio commentary track, Gerwig speaks of Lady Bird as a tale of reverse migration given the character’s desire to move eastward to college in New York. Her film captures a generational shift that revises a country’s guiding principles by prioritizing graciousness before greed as well as remembrance over reinvention. Other messengers, ranging from a Catholic priest’s half-digested sermon to Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, profess this wisdom as well before Christine is prepared to hear it. She must learn their lessons by living them, making mistakes, and finding her way toward gratitude. “I wanted to tell you – I love you,” she professes in the film’s final line. “Thank you. I’m … thank you.”
We must all experience this growth in the same way, of course, but it’s fortunate that Lady Bird exists as a kind of self-reinforcing cinematic Thanksgiving meal. The film can – or dare I say, should – serve as a yearly reminder to return to the table and count our blessings. As Christine finds, it’s hard to tune out the constant cultural noise that the best version of yourself is off in the distance. The answers to a more grateful life are already there at home and in ourselves, like nourishing food for the soul perfectly arranged by Greta Gerwig. The film might be just five years old in 2022, yet the sage insights offered in Lady Bird to appreciate who we are and what we have already make it a holiday tradition worth maintaining.
Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance film journalist. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared on Slashfilm, Slant, Little White Lies and many other outlets. Some day soon, everyone will realize how right he is about Spring Breakers.