"Lady Bird" and the Breakthrough of Grace


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.


Copyright 2017 Bishop Robert Barron.
This article is reprinted with the kind permission of WordonFire.org, where it was originally published.


About Author

Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and chairman of the Bishops' Committee on Evangelization & Catechesis.


  1. In case you’re interested in seeing “Lady Bird,” it may be helpful to also consider what Catholic News Agency blogger Jenny Uebbing posted about the book. This is the link to the FB post, but I’ve pasted her comments from that post below. https://www.facebook.com/mamaneedscoffeeblog/posts/954062981399625

    “I have profound respect for Bishop Barron and his powerful, effective ministry, but this review leaves me cold. I think in an attempt to meet the culture where it’s at, he is highlighting redemption and upsides where he sees them, but this review comes off as an endorsement of a movie that I found intensely problematic. After reading an even more effusive review on another Catholic site, I took a friend to see it this past weekend and we were kind of horrified.

    Were there redeeming moments and charming throwbacks to high school and early college? Yeah. (especially the soundtrack!) But… there were enough graphic teen sex scenes, an instance of full frontal male (print)nudity, gratuitous references to masturbation (one of which occurs in the sacristy of a church while 2 central characters are munching on unconsecrated Communion hosts), endorsements of homosexuality and denigration of the sanctity of life that we walked out of the theater feeling a little like we’d been vomited on.
    Why didn’t we leave sooner? Good question. It was kind of a frog in slowly boiling water situation. The toxicity escalated slowly and by the time we were sufficiently repulsed to think about leaving, the credits were rolling.
    This movie was well acted and the storyline was compelling, but the negatives far outweigh the positives, in my view.”

  2. And, not to belabor it, but Catholic News Service’s review echoes Jenny Uebbing’s”

    “It’s a redeeming wrap-up. But the problematic material that precedes it requires thoughtful discernment by grown viewers well-grounded in their faith.

    The film contains underage nonmarital sexual activity, mature themes, a same-sex kiss, a scene of marijuana use and frequent coarse language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.”

  3. I am not as shocked by the sex, drugs, underage drinking per se. As a parent now, I certainly see these things both through the lens of my own teenage catholic and all-boys private high school life and through the lens of a dad with an 11 y.o. daughter. It is teen angst and parental anxiety.

    I too was hoping for some kind of catholic chord to be struck watching the film, partly based on all the positive buzz (including buzz from Commonweal and America). I also am quite a fan of Saorise Ronan’s body of work.

    But first, it took awhile for me to fall into the rhythm/pacing of the film. I suppose I was expecting a humorous teleplay like JUNO or something more lyrical like AMERICAN BEAUTY. Instead there were little snippets here and there with missed opportunities and bubbling emotions. I’m ambivalent about that kind of exposition as I live in a world where adults and everyone else lives distracted lives between various screens, apps, and smart devices. I get that straight forward intimacy from longer, focused and intentional conversations is as quaint as buddhist chanting.

    The other impression I got was that Lady Bird herself was often “all wrong.” Her best friend was the most authentic throughout, but even other minor characters weren’t as “flawed” because they weren’t presenting themselves as other than what they did or did not know. I suppose there is a place for someone yearning to be smarter or more of a “know it all” than they actually are. And Lady Bird certainly wasn’t a craven character. I can sympathize with her because of where she ends up, but at any given moment prior to that time, she was a conflicting mess of bad choices or misdirected rage or irresponsibility.

    In the end, the big takeaway I got from the film is that sending your kids off to college today is as tremendously terrifying as being drafted during the Vietnam war. There are just too many unknowns and too many pushes and pulls and hurdles that make “coming of age” more of an ordeal. Yes, in terms of familial and other social relationships it’s about ATTENTION and LOVE–the nuns are, as in real life, clear eyed about that.

    But in terms of economics and the real world now (i.e. The Trump Administration) it is not at all clear how to proceed. Conflicting messages on what it means to succeed or win, carelessness in treatment of immigrants, women, minorities, the environment. A carelessness with the truth and a disdain for uncomfortable facts…these are all worse than being scandalized by the teen world of sex, drugs, and bad decisions…especially because it feels like there are no more adults, let alone nuns, in the room.

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