The word adoption is never used in the highly praised, award-nominated and enjoyable film Ladybird. Nor is adoption discussed. But it lurks in the background.
The film focuses on a troubled mother-daughter relationship, mainly because of the mother’s negativity and constant criticism of her only slightly rebellious, teenage daughter. Ladybird, who chose this name after rejecting Christine, attends a Catholic high school in Sacramento, where she is an average student academically, but she runs for class president and excels in musical theater and dance. She attracts popular boys and has girl friends who are both rich and poor. (The film incorporates interesting perspectives on social class as seen from a teenager’s experience.) Ladybird’s main transgression is to secretly apply to a few colleges in the East rather than only to the California universities on which her mother insists. Ladybird enlists her sweet and compliant father to fill out the financial aid forms she needs for these applications and to keep her secret.
I, and many mothers, would love to have such a teenager focused on achievement. So why is the mother who obviously loves her daughter so unhappy and so critical? The film maker doesn’t elucidate, but one possible explanation is that she has the burden of financially supporting the whole family, often doing double shifts as a nurse, after her husband loses his job. She also seems to do most of the housework for the household which includes Ladybird’s older brother, Miguel, and his black or mixed-race girlfriend. Miguel is a handsome man of color, probably mixed race, and in his twenties. We learn only a bit about this mild mannered young man, but he seems to be on his way to success in the work world. He appears caring toward Ladybird, helping her get a job, but she seems uninterested in him.
Everyone I know who has seen the film–both those involved in adoption and not–have been puzzled by his place in the family, concluding he must be adopted. Then, Ladybird, who is white, might be adopted too. The many ways in which she is different from her mother could be the result of adoption and could explain the mother’s inability to effectively parent such a daughter. An adopted daughter, with no ties to her birth family, might have an extra incentive to change her name.
Ladybird raises several questions: Should we cheer a film that normalizes adoption, which makes it seem uncomplicated? Should we be happy that the film without comment pictures an interracial family living peacefully in a white suburb? I don’t think so. Some years ago, social critics (and then many others) rejected the idea that whites ignoring race – color blindness – was progressive. Rather, it is now widely recognized that ignoring racial hierarchy and discrimination hampers social changes toward racial equality.
The same case can be made about adoption. A family formed through adoption is not the same as a biological family. An adoptive family can be loving and stable, but there is always another family, the birth family, whether acknowledged or not. What would have been progressive, would have been to depict how Miguel and Ladybird, deal with interracial adoption. How does it feel to be adopted if there is no contact with birth families? What does it feel like to be a teenager (biological or adopted) with a brother who looks nothing like you or your parents? How does it feel to Miguel to be the only person of color in his family and neighborhood?
Whatever its many virtues as a film, the absence of any recognition or discussion about a family formed through adoption, detracts from Ladybird’s merits.