When the Academy Awards are presented this weekend, there won’t be a category for Best Movie Scene. But if there were, I know which one I’d want to take home the Oscar.
It’s a small moment in “Lady Bird,” a film that’s already been nominated for several awards. The title character, played by the gifted Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, is a teenage girl finishing high school in Sacramento, California. Like many teens, she’s unsure of who she is and who she wants to be. Lady Bird’s anxiety shapes her relationship with her mother Marion, played beautifully by Laurie Metcalf.
Making things worse is the family’s financial situation, which is strained because Lady Bird’s father Larry, played by Tracy Letts, is out of work.
Lady Bird and Marion go shopping for a dress that the young woman needs for a special occasion, and it’s like most trips to the store that mothers and daughters of a certain age typically endure. They argue, the verbal volleys building to a Category Five caterwaul.
All of this sadness and conflict would be hard to watch if “Lady Bird” wasn’t also so funny, tender and compellingly real. Its authenticity grows from our sense that these characters deeply love each other in spite of their differences.
That really shines through in the scene I’m talking about, as an exhausted Marion, who’s been working extra shifts to help support the family, stays up late once she gets home to hem Lady Bird’s dress. Although the dress is a secondhand purchase from a thrift shop, Marion wants her daughter — so fretful and furious — to look her best.
Marion quietly enters Lady Bird’s bedroom and hangs the refurbished dress near her bed. The young girl, fast asleep, is oblivious to her mother’s gesture. One gathers that Lady Bird probably wouldn’t notice Marion’s gift of time even if she were awake.
It’s not that Lady Bird is bad; she’s just too captive to her adolescent angst to see past her nose. But her cluelessness points to the way that all of us can easily miss the modest ways we’re being nurtured by those who love us.
“Lady Bird” reminded me of one of my favorite poems, “Those Winter Sundays,” by the late Robert Hayden. Hayden was raised by foster parents, and his home life was far from perfect. But “Those Winter Sundays” is about one way that he knew his father loved him. It describes how his dad, on a day when he could have slept in, routinely got up early and warmed the house so everyone else could be comfortable, then shined Hayden’s good shoes for him.
“What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?,” Hayden asks.
I like that poem for the same reason I liked “Lady Bird.” Both celebrate the deepest form of love — the kind extended when no one else is looking.