The Painfully Real Way 'Lady Bird,' 'I, Tonya' & 'Palos Verdes' Show Mother-Daughter Bonds


If we know one thing as women, it's that there's no such thing as a typical mother-daughter relationship. Some of us grow up with loving, caring, wonderful moms, while others experience abuse and neglect. Some of us don't have a relationship with our mothers at all, and some seek out our moms after years to initiate a connection. This fall, three major movies — I, Tonya; The Tribes of Palos Verdes and Lady Bird — explore three very different kinds of mother-daughter relationships, but all of them share a similar thread throughout. No matter how varying the relationships portrayed in these films are, they each feature heartbreaking depictions of daughters who continually seek approval from their moms, even if their mothers rarely show the same care for them.

Spoilers ahead. The complicated relationships between mothers and daughters have been addressed in a number of movies over the years, from Terms of Endearment to Freaky Friday. But this fall's trend is showing audiences a particular, emotional facet of these intimate family bonds, despite the characters' stark differences. In I, Tonya, the mom is downright abusive; in Palos Verdes, the mom is distant and dealing with illness; and in Lady Bird, the mom is touchy and biting but also filled with love. Yet in each of these cases, it's the daughters who struggle to maintain their relationships despite their mothers' distance, highlighting just how often women in real life seek out their mothers' support.


In I, Tonya, Allison Janney plays figure skater Tonya Harding's mother LaVona, an emotionally and physically abusive alcoholic. Janney's performance is punchy, funny, and earning warranted awards chatter, but what the film nails best is LaVona and Tonya's dangerous, often violent interactions. When Tonya is a child, LaVona talks up her daughter's impressive skating abilities, but that support almost immediately tanks as LaVona spends the rest of the film trashing Tonya's choices, husband, and career. But despite all of LaVona's abuse, Tonya still returns to her for approval, both before the '94 Olympics and after the Nancy Kerrigan incident, for which Tonya was implicated. In one incredibly sad scene, LaVona visits Tonya to offer her "support," but Tonya quickly figures out that she's there on a mission, hiding a recording device in her pocket to try and get Tonya to admit to planning the attack. It's a tragic moment in which Tonya learns she can never count on the woman she's spent so many years trying to impress.

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Meanwhile, inThe Tribes of Palos Verdes, Jennifer Garner stars as Sandy, a woman with two teenage children who moves with her family from heartland Michigan to the wealthy California coast so that her surgeon husband can expand his clientele. Maika Monroe plays her teenage daughter Medina, whose relationship with her mother can only be described as distant. Sandy's depression and manic episodes and the fact that she refuses professional help are at the core of their separation, and though Sandy has only the best intentions for her daughter, it's clear she should be paying more attention to the woman Medina has become.

Out of her element in California, Sandy repeatedly chastises the women of Palos Verdes as phony, plastic-surgery obsessed, money grubbing housewives. She urges Medina to reject their superficial expectations and embrace her self-worth outside of her appearance. What Sandy misses, however, is that her daughter is an avid feminist, pursuing the male-dominated sport of surfing and rejecting the sexism that hits her at every turn. Sandy is too involved in her own expectations of herself that she can't notice that Medina is already a bright, young woman forging her own path.

Soon, a string of family tragedies and Sandy's escalating mental illness drives the wedge even further. Medina can't "save" her mother from the demons that haunt her, but she still tries her damndest. She reaches out for her mother's approval and love no matter what happens, like so many daughters who only want their mothers to see them for who they are.


And then there's Lady Bird. The mother-daughter relationship in Greta Gerwig's film is heartbreakingly real, and it captures they ways that teen angst is often at odds with maternal instinct. Saorise Ronan's self-named Lady Bird, like so many teenage girls, spends the movie trying to figure out who she is by exploring her desires, and suffering through all of the expected plot points of adolescence. Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf, also earning awards chatter), however, struggles to pay the bills, work double shifts, and make ends meet. Naturally, the duo frequently clash, spewing criticism and snark spew at one another all movie long, yet all the while, Lady Bird looks towards her mother for advice on growing up and womanhood in general.

The lovely thing about Lady Bird, though, is that, unlike I, Tonya or The Tribes of Palos Verdes, mother and child eventually come to a loving understanding of one another. Their usual tension takes a dark turn when Lady Bird decides to head to college on the east coast, rejecting her mom's suggestion that she stay in California. And though they part ways silently, they have separate revelations about their relationship that negate any biting remarks or heated shouts that they had prior. Marion races through the airport to bid her daughter farewell, albeit missing her departure, and writes her loving, in-depth letters. And Lady Bird, in the film's lovely, closing scene, leaves her mom a heartfelt voicemail that encompasses gratitude for every scraped knee, home-sewn dress, and maternal sacrifice that Marion ever made. What Lady Bird doesn't realize until that moment is that she already has her mother's approval, and more importantly, her love, no matter how often she's broken her mom's heart.

Lady Bird, I, Tonya, and The Tribes of Palos Verdes manage to capture such intensely different mother-daughter relationships, but all of them showcase such a common, painful thread in real mother-daughter bonds. Despite maternal rejection, these daughters keep coming back, because they crave their mothers' approval and attention as they become grown women and figure out their lives. Wanting motherly love no matter the cost is such a universal desire, and it's shown beautifully on-screen during this fall movie season.