Lady Bird, a new coming of age story written and directed by Greta Gerwig, opens with a quote from Joan Didion, “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Didion was born and raised in Sacramento, as was Gerwig, as is Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, the title character of this critically acclaimed film. (The film is not only making most of the “Ten Best Films of 2017” lists, it has a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes -- with a record high number of reviews.)
This month we’re pushing the definition of a Christmas film here at Movie Churches, but this film not only opens with that quote mentioning Christmas, and we also get to see Lady Bird celebrate Christmas with her family. “Dance of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker is even included in the soundtrack.
And for this blog, it should be noted that there are churches, and there are clergy: priests and nuns. Lady Bird’s family doesn’t appear to be at all religious (Gerwig, who based this story on her own life, was raised Unitarian Universalist). Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is sent by her parents to a Catholic school, not for religious reasons, but for safety’s sake (Lady Bird’s mother repeatedly mentions her son, Lady Bird’s brother, seeing a knifing outside a Sacramento public school.)
They’re not not required to fully participate. Sometimes Lady Bird appears to join in with the singing and unison prayers, and sometimes she does not. When communion is distributed Lady Bird crosses her arms, which is often a request for a blessing while refusing communion. Lady Bird is also required to attend an anti abortion assembly and is suspended when we she argues against the guest speaker (to be fair, it is probably because Lady Bird uses obscenities in her argument.)
Films featuring Catholic Schools often portray the priests and nuns as being out of touch and clueless, even in films meaning to present them as positive (like last week’s featured film, The Bells of St. Mary’s). In films like Sing Street, the priests are downright mean -- if not outright evil. The teachers in Lady Bird really seem like kind people and good teachers.
Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) genuinely cares about her students and presses them academically. She encourages them to read Augustine, Aquinas, and Kierkegaard (warning students that his description of “falling in love with God” will make them “swoon.”) When she chaperones the school dance, she encourages couples not to dance too close together, saying “Leave six inches for the Holy Spirit.” She also monitors skirt length, but not harshly. And when Lady Bird plays a mean-spirited practical joke on Sister Sarah Joan, the nun takes in all in good fun.
Lady Bird and her friend Julie sign up for the school drama program which is taught by Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson). He obviously loves the theater and enthusiastically leads drama exercises along with his rehearsals. He takes on a very challenging musical, Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. We see students gossiping about the priest, wondering how he came into the priesthood. They say he was married before, and his son died because of suicide or a drug overdose. He seems to suffer great emotional stress which leads to his leaving his position at the school.
Father Walther (Bob Stephenson) takes over as drama teacher, but his experience is in coaching football. His passionate direction of a rehearsal like football practice is probably the funniest scene in the film..
We see that Lady Bird is not exactly devout. She and Julie steal the communion wafers for snacking (but before they are consecrated). She mocks the priests and nuns, but when she goes off to college, we see that her days at Catholic school had an impact. Belief in God means something to her, as does church. The school may not have made her a Catholic, but she has been changed.
If this blog was for evaluating films, I’d happily join all the other critics in their praise of Lady Bird. Instead, I’ll praise the nuns and priests in the film, giving them the highest Movie Church rating of Four Steeples.
(Rated R for language and sexual content)
(Rated R for language and sexual content)