The new coming-of-age film, "Lady Bird," is one of the funniest films of the year and possibly one of the best-edited films I've ever seen. The eponymous main character is a more-precocious-than-rebellious teen (Saoirse Ronan) who places a high premium on originality (real name: Christine). Lady Bird lives in boring Sacramento ("the Midwest of California") and dreams of breaking away, but her options are limited due to her family's constrained finances. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is a hard-working lady who doesn't appreciate her daughter's non-traditional approach to life. For Mom, realism means thinking inside the box and putting a price tag on just about everything, at one point, even the cost of raising Lady Bird. Not only that, she is brutally honest and perpetually critical of her only child. Thank God for Lady Bird's dad who runs interference.
Lady Bird goes to an all-girls Catholic school against her will, but finds it to be a rather reasonable place, and she eagerly joins the drama club.
LEGIT SCREEN CATHOLICS
Despite the seriously fraught family dynamic, there does exist an underlying, undying love, it's just that mothers and daughters have what writer-director Greta Gerwig describes as "spiky" relationships. (Yes!) What of the Catholic trappings in "Lady Bird"? Gerwig, who is not Catholic, went to a Franciscan Catholic high school in Sacramento, and found it to be a very positive experience. "Making fun of Catholic school has been done. I didn't want to do that. When I went to Catholic school, I met great priests and nuns who were real people, and I wanted to show that." "Lady Bird" is a bit of an ode to Catholic education. Gerwig was also required to take four years of theology and it shows (except for Theology of the Body). She approaches Catholicism as an interesting and valid worldview and religion. (I got to attend a screening with Gerwig in Los Angeles, and during the Q & A afterward, she gave an elegant, spot-on definition of grace.)
Gerwig even went through the pains of getting a real priest to play the priest who offers the school Masses that punctuate the film. (Since the film is set around 2003, the priest authentically adjusted the words of the liturgy to what it would have been before the recently-renewed liturgy.) The school Masses--taking us through the liturgical year--are so genuine, with a touch of levity. Nuns are spouses of Jesus who care about their students. Priests are good at what they do. (One sacerdotal football coach side-splittingly fills in as the drama coach when the drama priest falls ill, and tries to transfer his bullish methods to the intricacies of acting.)
CAVALIER TEEN SEX
The only trite handling of teen life in "Lady Bird" pertains to teen sexuality. All the same old jokes and ribaldry are played out. It's almost as though the filmmaker is trying to protect something. "See? This is the way it is. All teens want to and will have sex when they're teens and this is exactly how it will happen with a few slight variations and always of course with irresponsible colluding adults on the side." (There is a touching portrayal of a young man discovering he's same-sex attracted, however.) Lady Bird's mother who is on her case for absolutely everything big and small is suddenly out-of-character and unconcerned about if/when her daughter is having sex: "College is the best time to have sex, but if you don't wait, be safe like we talked about." SERIOUSLY???
One of the biggest problems with cavalier teen sex in almost all media today is that it's so, so, so, so shallow with not even any higher, unfulfilled aspirations. Again, it's like the filmmakers are trying to drum their own mantra into us and re-establish over and over: "See? Sex has no meaning, no meaning at all. Pre-marital sex won't affect you one iota, beyond a few bruised romantic feelings." Where's the ANGST? How can this be? Sexuality is one of the biggest sources of angst for teens. And teens' experience of sexuality is not one-size-fits-all, thankyouverymuch.
True, "Lady Bird" is a comedy, but there were other poignant moments in the film. Oh, and as in other films, teen sex is always awkward, of course, so not only are we supposed to be pervy voyeurs of minors having sex, we're supposed to laugh at them, too. It's all just so mean on so many levels.
MY BEEF WITH GRETA
After watching a few of Greta's films (in which she acts), I became rather incensed with her and wrote her off. She always plays a bit of a ditz, and I suspected (rightly) that she wasn't in real life. (Greta presents as an incredibly insightful, disciplined, precise, gentle, genteel and articulate person. I could listen to her for hours.) Why would I be upset that GG plays a ditz? Because in one of her ditzy films, she (oopsy doopsy) gets pregnant and has a (oopsy doopsy) little abortion. Tee hee hee.
I entered the screening of "Lady Bird" gritting my teeth, and lo and behold, the topic of abortion is dealt with again. This time a shiny, pleasant, pro-life speaker comes to the high school. A bizarre, supposedly-funny (there's nothing funny about abortion), deflecting, non-sequitur-ing, avoiding-the-real-issue dialogue transpires between the speaker and LB which results in LB getting expelled for being rude to a speaker. I'm going to reproduce the short conversation here and pull it apart, so you should move on to the next subtitle if you don't want a SPOILER.
LB: (from what I could gather, pictures of aborted babies were circulating in the student audience) "Just because something's ugly doesn't mean it's morally wrong."
Speaker: (deftly not getting caught up in equating ugliness with immorality) "You think dead babies aren't morally wrong?"
LB: (not answering the question, but continuing with her "ugly" theme) "Pictures of my vagina during my monthly period would be disturbing, but that's not immoral." Yes, Lady Bird, it would be, but so would pictures of boogers and a lot of other non-sexual things, so you can drop your false line of reasoning now.
Lady Bird being expelled for rudeness is a cop-out similar to the miscarriage in "Citizen Ruth," but I digress.
My beef with Greta is somehow personal: woman to woman. Every pro-abortion woman breaks the circle of life that strengthens our sisterhood. My hope and prayer is that GG is on a journey, not at the end of her quest for the truth about women's true liberation, the heart of which is women's epic, kick-ass mission of protecting the beginning of every human life.
IS "LADY BIRD" GRETA GERWIG?
Is "Lady Bird" autobiographical? Gerwig says no. She says she was a rule-keeper in school. But I wonder if LB is her alter-ego, her shadow side?
LADY BIRD IS A LIAR
There are many themes in "Lady Bird." One very intriguing theme is the fact that Lady Bird lies constantly, but doesn't like being lied to. And sadly, LB doesn't learn her lesson by the end of the film, but continues lying, even when she moves to a new locale. LB is not as original as she thinks she is because original people don't lie. The whole point of their originality is that they are true to themselves and their convictions, however embryonic or misconstrued they may be. Maybe LB lies because she doesn't really know who she is or what she believes. It seems she only knows what she doesn't want. One can only hope that she "grows out of it" as we see her progress in other ways.
A lovely aspect of Christine/Lady Bird's journey is the moment--far away from home--when she realizes where/what home is and even claims her heritage a bit. Gerwig speaks of it like this: "We receive so many gifts in life, and so often we don't recognize them at the moment, only later."
"Lady Bird" gets all the Catholic trappings and surface goodwill and niceness right, but utterly misses the core of Christianity: the Gospel of the body. And if you get that wrong? You got it all wrong.
"The language of Christianity is the body."
About the Author
Sister Helena Burns is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, an international congregation founded to communicate God's Word through the media. She has an M.A. in Media Literacy Education; a B.A. in theology and philosophy from St. John's University, NYC; studied screenwriting at UCLA and Act One, Hollywood; and holds a Certificate in Pastoral Youth Ministry. Sr. Helena is also studying at the Theology of the Body Institute, PA.
She is a movie reviewer for Life Teen & The Catholic Channel--Sirius XM. She wrote and directed Media Apostle: The Father James Alberione Story, a documentary on the life of Blessed James Alberione, and is a co-producer on www.The40film.com a pro-life film documenting the 40 years since Roe v. Wade. She is the author of He Speaks to You, a book for young women published by Pauline Books & Media and developed a Theology of the Body curriculum for teens, young adults and adults, which she presents in a 40-hour course.
Sr. Helena gives Media Literacy and Theology of the Body workshops to youth and adults all over the U.S. and Canada, and believes that media can be a primary tool for sharing God's love and salvation.