BIG FISH, LADY BIRD And How People Come To Understand Who Their Parents Are

Both films are more thematically similar than they appear at first glance.

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At first glance, there may not appear to be more than just superficial similarities between Tim Burton’s Big Fish and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. While both are about parent-child relationships, the core dynamic at the heart of Big Fish is between a man about to embark on his own journey of parenthood and his elderly father, while the duo in Lady Bird is a middle-aged woman and her teen daughter. However, despite the differences, both films are, in their own way, ultimately about people coming to see their parents as human beings with their own insecurities and dreams.

Lady Bird is the clearer example of this, as a lot of the tension between Christine, who also goes by Lady Bird, and her mother Marion stems from the latter’s strict parenting. Marion’s insistence on Lady Bird cleaning up her room, learning financial responsibility, and other such things very obviously grates on Christine, who sees Marion for much of the film as less of a person and more of an overbearing authority figure whom she has to escape. This view Lady Bird has of her mother is most evident in the scene where she picks up a pen and pad and asks for an account of all the money Marion has spent on her, so she can repay the debt and thus never have to talk to her again.

Yet, as the movie progresses, Lady Bird begins to see Marion as more than someone to escape, to the point that Marion’s silent treatment of Christine, something she would have actively welcomed at the beginning of the film, becomes a source of pain instead. This culminates in the poignant voicemail that Christine leaves for Marion at the end of the film, a voicemail that would never have been left by the Lady Bird who jumped out of a car to escape her mother.

The relationship between Will Bloom and Edward Bloom in Big Fish, on the other hand, is starkly different from that of Christine and Marion. Where Marion was strict and harsh with Lady Bird, Edward was more whimsical with Will, telling him tall tales of his own adventures. This drives a wedge between the two in a different way; Edward’s constant storytelling leaves Will feeling like he doesn’t know anything about his father beyond a collection of fairytales. If anything, Will suffers from the opposite problem of Christine, in that he feels his father has been too distant his whole life, hiding behind stories to avoid showing who he really is. Will even compares his father to an iceberg, yearning to see the 90% he thinks his father keeps hidden beneath the surface.

And yet, as Edward reaches his final days, Will begins to realize the true meaning behind the stories his father told. Edward’s funeral is the ultimate revelation that the stories he said weren’t tall tales as much as they were embellishments of his true life stories. Even before he passes, however, Will begins to see the stories for what they really are, as not only does his mother tell him that there were elements of real life in the tales, but Jenny also talks about how Edward merged most women he met who weren’t Sandra into one interweaving tale, indicating how he felt about Will’s mother. Will did know his father; all he had to do was look more closely at the stories themselves to know who Edward was.

Ultimately, despite their age differences, and despite the differences in how they perceive their parents, Will and Christine are on a path to the same conclusion, that their parents are people with their own views on things, and their own way of processing issues and reacting to the world around them. Will's journey in this has him going from disbelieving his father's tall tales to seeing their elements of truth and building out from there, finally understanding why Edward did tell his stories the way he did. Will making up the story of how Edward dies is a wonderfully poignant moment in that sense, as it reveals that, in the moment, even if he doesn't fully realize that his father's ideas had more than a hint of truth, he understands the importance of stories.

Christine's journey takes a different route to get to the same place, particularly as she gets less exposure to the other people in her parent’s life than Will does. While Will's feelings towards his father are influenced by the fact that Will himself is about to be a father, Lady Bird's feelings towards Marion clearly stem more from the fact that the two have shared such close quarters for the entirety of Christine's life. It's only when Christine sees the world outside, both in the relationships she has with Danny and Kyle as well as the fleeting friendship she has with Jenna, that she gains an understanding of what Marion's unwavering support means, even if it often led to conflict between the two. While the voicemail is an explicit acknowledgment on Christine's part that she's appreciative of her mother's actions, her switch from Lady Bird back to Christine when introducing herself is also a key indicator of her changing opinion on her mother.

Both movies benefit from having this revelation be something only the characters undergo about their parents, showing the audience the human side of Marion and Ed throughout the film. Way before Christine leaves the voicemail for Marion, she’s shown lending a shoulder and an ear for support for those who come to see her in the hospital. Similarly, Big Fish shows Edward’s life before Will was born, and while it retains the fairytale aspects of his tales, the audience nonetheless gets to see the heart behind the stories; the love he has for Sandra and the longing he feels to see the world is on full display through the magical realism. In the characters of Will and Christine, both Big Fish and Lady Bird reflect a fundamental aspect of growing up: understanding who our parents are as people. Being able to see the process portrayed excellently once is a treat; being able to see it twice, with two vastly differing perspectives, as is seen in Big Fish and Lady Bird, is nothing short of wonderful.