Greta Gerwig’s new film, Lady Bird, has taken the critics by storm: it is the most-reviewed movie in the history of the Rotten Tomatoes website to have initially sustained a 100 per cent positive rating, and it is receiving serious Oscar buzz for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. Having seen the “coming attractions” trailers, I knew it would be a quirky, offbeat comedy, but I had no idea that it would be of considerable religious interest as well.
The comic drama centres on 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 to The Grapes of Wrath together. 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 realises 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.
Meanwhile 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, “OK, 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 autumn 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 50-yard-line enthusiasm to his new task.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection