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“Lady Bird” and the Breakthrough of Grace

Running underneathGreta Gerwig’s complex story of love and conflict is religion, more precisely, Catholicism.

(YouTube.com)

Greta Gerwig’s new film, Lady Bird, has taken the critics by storm. It is the most-reviewed movie in the history of the website Rotten Tomatoes to have sustained a 100% positive rating, and it is receiving serious Oscar buzz for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. Having seen the coming attractions, I knew it would be a quirky, offbeat comedy, but I had no idea that Lady Bird would be of considerable religious interest as well.

The dramedy centers around the unusually complex relationship between Christine (who calls herself “Lady Bird”) and her mother Marion. The film opens with the two of them crying in the front seat of their car, having just finished listening together to The Grapes of Wrath. It’s obvious that they share a powerful emotional bond. But within seconds of that touching moment, they are arguing so violently that Lady Bird (in the most memorable sight-gag of the movie) simply opens the door and exits the moving vehicle!

Lady Bird is a bright and talented kid, but she passes through all of the typical teenage crises. Her first serious boyfriend turns out to be gay. Her follow-up relationship is with a pretentious and self-absorbed young man who basically uses her. She has a terrible falling out with her oldest girlfriend, who sincerely cares for Lady Bird, and she takes up with a superficial “cool kid” girl whom she tries desperately to impress, to no avail. Though she regularly bad-mouths her hometown of Sacramento, California as hopelessly provincial, it is obvious that she loves the place. She wants to go to a university far away, ideally on the east coast, but she realizes her grades are probably not strong enough, and her family doesn’t have the means to pay her way. All of this, of course, is a formula for considerable angst.

And Marion is essentially a good woman who sincerely loves Lady Bird, but she is also hovering, over-protective, hyper-demanding, and guilt-inducing. When Marion discovers that Lady Bird has kept secret the fact that she was accepted to an east-coast university, she responds in cold anger, giving her daughter the silent treatment, refusing even to say goodbye to Lady Bird as she leaves for college.

Now you might say, “okay, a typical coming of age story.” Yet running underneath this complex story of love and conflict is religion, more precisely, Catholicism. Though not a Catholic herself, Lady Bird attends a Catholic high school, with quite a number of priests and nuns on the faculty. At regular intervals in the film, we see Lady Bird and her classmates attending Mass and other religious services—and none of this is presented mockingly or ironically, as we’ve come to expect from most Hollywood productions. When Lady Bird auditions for the school’s fall musical, she discovers that an older priest is one of the drama coaches. This figure is presented very sympathetically as a man who, earlier in life, had been married and had lost a son, and who now wrestles with depression. When he goes away for treatment, he is replaced by a younger priest, who had served up to that point as football coach and who, to the amusement of his students, brings a good deal of fifty-yard-line enthusiasm to his new task.

But by far the most powerful and positive personages in the film are the religious sisters who staff the high school. To a person, they are bright, dedicated, funny, and wise, and provide strong role models for Lady Bird and her classmates. When one of the girls fixes a sign to the sisters’ car announcing, “married to Jesus for forty years,” the nuns privately enjoy the joke as much as the students. The pivotal scene in the film involves a conversation between the headmaster of the school and Lady Bird in the wake of Lady Bird’s truly insulting and objectionable behavior during an assembly. Whereas a more small-minded administrator would simply have dismissed the girl, this canny nun punishes Lady Bird but then invites her to explore her creativity as a writer. Throughout the film, the Catholic Church is an encouraging and illuminating presence.

And the spiritual payoff comes at the end of the story. Lady Bird arrives in New York, still alienated from her mother, still brooding and unhappy. She drinks too much at a party and finds herself in the hospital. In the bed next to her in the emergency room is a very young boy, his eye bandaged, sitting next to his mother who gives him comfort. It triggers something in Lady Bird. Wandering away from the hospital, she realizes that it is Sunday morning, and she enters a church, where she listens to the dulcet tones of a choir singing the praises of God. Moved to tears, she commences to recall the religious services, the priests, and the nuns who had shaped her. She then leaves a message of apology on her mother’s cell phone.

In a remarkable interview following the release of Lady Bird, Gerwig spoke of her own formation in a Catholic high school and of the priests and nuns who inspired her to realize that there is no single path to holiness, that God can use “whatever you’ve got.” She furthermore admitted that she often mused on what the saints were like as teenagers, before they had their lives together, before they found their path. What, she wondered, was the moment of grace that galvanized them and gave them direction? Lady Bird is precisely about that strange and surprising breakthrough of grace.

About Bishop Robert Barron 139 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you Bishop Barron, I enjoyed the film very much! It had so much heart, and captured the Catholicism beautifully, as the young girl is trying to navigate her way through school with all the complexities of being a teenager. It wasn’t disrespectful to the faith, but strengthened the movie with the encouraging guidance from the religious sisters.

  2. I just watched the movie trailer. A rated R, teenage-struggle dramatic comedy that doesn’t beat up on the church – long live the New Evangelization!

  3. Interesting—I was very hesitant to see the movie because I figured it was a Hollywood propaganda piece. Nice to know—thank you for the review!

  4. I am saddened by this commentary by such an esteemed clergyman as Bishop Robert Barron. I watched the movie upon the recommendation of what I thought were some very devout Catholics. I cried for hours after leaving the movie. The endorsement made me feel like I was a “stranger in a strange land.” The movie left me feeling empty and sad.
    For Bishop Barron to end his commentary with the quote ‘God can use “whatever you’ve got” ‘ and “Lady Bird is precisely about that strange and surprising breakthrough of grace.” is a tragic commentary upon the lack of leadership in our faith and an endorsement of that statement.
    I am not unlike Lady Bird… I was blessed with the guidance of strong nuns and priests in my life. I struggled with those very issues in a similar setting. I struggle with the same issues (all of them) everyday…even at my advanced age of 61. Yet I believe that Jesus is clear in his teachings; “GO AND SIN NO MORE”. This is not the same as saying ‘God can use “whatever you’ve got” ‘!!!!
    This is the same patronizing statement which we use nowadays when we say “Good Job” which really means “You did YOUR best”… We are not held accountable to a higher standard! In the real world, especially in the workplace, “Good job” does not cut it… and “Good Job” will not cut it with God. Animals can do a good job. We were created in God’s image and likeness… and are asked to emulate the Divine… to rise up from “Good Job” to holiness.
    We look to our Church and her leaders to strengthen us in our understanding of right from wrong. We need guidance to become holy… not just to do a “good Job”. I hope that Bishop Barron has an examination of conscience and asks himself if he is truly leading his flock towards holiness.

  5. I wish the film hadn`t any gay scenes. Unfortunately what was rare until recently now is becoming usual in Hollywood. I haven`t seen the film but I am rather sceptical of what is coming from Hollywood these days, considering their huge support for liberal and anti-Christian agendas.

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