So many times we talk of grace at work in the world, but we may not always think of it at work in and through the deeply human stories of film. Some of my most profound spiritual experiences have been through and with movies. The first time I watched Shawshank Redemption I felt like I was punched in the stomach, not only because of the intensity of the prison situations but also because I began to wonder if I really knew what hope was since I had never experienced such desperation. Well, later on in life I experienced my own situations in which grasping onto hope was as necessary as holding onto a life preserver in a storm. Grace keeps us going. Grace allows us to never give up the fight and it is grace that challenges us to go deeper into our souls, realizing we are not our own but only God’s—totally and completely.
I had a similar experience of grace when I watched Greta Gerwig’s masterful film Lady Bird. Granted this film is a comedy/drama unlike Shawshank, yet it ends with similar themes of gratitude and hope. God works through all things human to reach out to us in the messiness of our daily life to speak a word of forgiveness, hope, mercy, and blessing. Lady Bird does this and more, thereby opening up the audience to receive those same gifts of grace and truth.
L to R: Sr. Helena Burns, FSP, Greta Gerwig, Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP
A senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento in 2002, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) faces the challenges of most teens: navigating a strained relationship with her parents and falling in love. Lady Bird and her best friend, Julianne “Julie” Steffans (Beanie Feldstein) join the school’s theater program. There Lady Bird meets Danny O’Neill (Lucas Headges) with whom she begins a romantic relationship. The situation dramatically shifts when she catches him with another guy. While dealing with her heartache, she immediately connects with Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), an existential musician, in an almost impulsive manner. Unfortunately, like too many teens, she thinks sex will salve the hurt inside. Instead it only complicates matters even more, and when she asks her mother about when is a good time to have sex, Marion (Laurie Metcalf) replies, “college.” This could have been an exceptional teaching moment about the sacredness of sex and the grace of what it means to give of oneself to another in the sacrament of marriage. Alas, this misstep does not help this sincere teen who seeks sound advice from the adults in her life. Yet, there was still grace in the moment: Lady Bird was seeking the truth and something to ground her in life. Marion struggles with her own insecurities and the inability to appropriately show her love for her daughter and to be a good mentor to her. They are very much alike in their cynicism and inner angst, as is so often the case with strained mother-daughter relationships. But, consolingly, God works with our weaknesses if we are open to see his grace at work.
This angst-ridden relationship of Lady Bird with her mother only accelerates, especially when she talks of applying to college on the East Coast. Her mother refuses to discuss it. Her father, who recently lost his job, supports her quietly and helps her with her applications. This issue caused a bigger rift in Lady Bird’s and her mother’s already tense relationship. But there is still grace. In a scene, Lady Bird is trying on prom dresses with her Mom. Lady Bird says to her mother, “I just wish…that you like me.” “I love you,” says her mother. “Yes,” says Lady Bird, “but do you like me?” Marion mumbles that she wishes her to be the best version of herself. Lady Bird asks, “What if this is the best version of myself?” Marion only looks at her with a glance without saying anything audibly. This grace-filled moment of a teen expressing her need to be accepted and loved for who she is can only speak to the deeper existential desires of humanity. We all want to be loved and accepted. But, truly only God can infinitely fulfill those desires we most long for.
Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf as Marion in "Lady Bird" (A24)
When Lady Bird is accepted to Columbia University in New York both her parents drive her to the airport but her mother stubbornly refuses to get out of the car to say goodbye, while her father brings her to the terminal. As her mother drives away she has a change of heart and comes back to the terminal only to discover that Lady Bird has already left. While in New York, Lady Bird reads letters that her mother wrote then trashed but were rescued by her father and sent to her. The letters were her mother’s way of trying to communicate her love, care, and concern for her daughter. It touches Lady Bird and she decides to go back to using her given name, Christine.
When Lady Bird tests the waters even more at a college party, becoming so drunk she is hospitalized, she thinks of her mother and all that she tried to teach her. After leaving the hospital she enters a church. The beauty of the light shining through the stained glass windows symbolizes the grace tangibly experienced in the film. Christine is transformed. She suddenly realizes that she does not know everything and that her parents really are her guides, mentors, and most of all her family—the one thing that nothing in this world can replace. She calls her mother on her cell phone as she exists the church and leaves a message for her. She asks for her forgiveness, saying she is sorry for not listening to her. This most touching moment of profound grace is the meaning of the film in a nutshell—forgiveness. Only forgiveness heals. Only forgiveness and recognition of one’s faults opens one up to receive the gift of grace, that is the joy of humbling recognizing that we are not the center of the universe and that we do not know everything there is to know. We need other people. We are not in control. This is a hugely graced moment for Lady Bird, and for me as I watched this film. Life is so much less complicated when we let go of our grasp on life and surrender to God’s gift of the moment. We find joy, peace, and hope. Grace is there for our taking, if we but open our minds and hearts to receive it. Lady Bird did just that. Greta Gerwig pulled from the best of her Catholic education to latch onto this truth of the grace of God at work in the world.
Click here for Sr. Helena's review of "Lady Bird."