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Hannah Rich on ‘Lady Bird’ as a tale of not–quite–complete redemption.
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(This article contains spoilers.)
Calling Lady Bird a teen drama doesn’t do it justice; it is, intentionally or not, one of the most theological films I have watched in quite some time. It tells the story of Christine, or ‘Lady Bird’, a teenage girl growing up in Sacramento in the early 2000s, and the intense relationship she has with her mother, leading up to her moving away to college. It is an affectionate rather than satirical portrait of Catholic school life; a beautiful blend of the nostalgia, love and imperfection that comprise family relationships, in particular between mothers and daughters.
Most of all, it felt a bit like being beaten up emotionally and spiritually and reminded me of why, despite everything, my faith is still mine. I went to see the film with a friend who didn’t grow up in church or in Catholic school and who was both singularly unmoved by the whole thing, beyond it being a good story, and fascinated by my shell–shocked reaction on leaving the cinema.
The film takes its title from the name the main character describes as her ‘given name’ because she gave it to herself, as opposed to the name her parents gave her, Christine. At the same time, she is exploring what life might be away from her family and outside of the suburban Sacramento she’s always called home; pretending not to love the things she has always loved in hope of impressing the cooler girls in her class and dabbling in romantic relationships which turn out bittersweet. She moves away to college in New York, against her mother’s wishes. The final scene shows the first shoots of redemption as she phones her parents and rediscovers herself as Christine because ‘it’s the name you gave me and it’s a good one’.
The not–quite–complete arc of redemption, it seemed to me, reflects the way inherited religion has eventually to become your own. You can be born into a faith or a tradition, but there still comes a point when you have to make it your own, given to you both by yourself and by others.
In school, Lady Bird stands in chapel reciting the Lords’ Prayer, which blends seamlessly into standing in the classroom reciting the pledge of allegiance, as the icons of the cross and the American flag merge in the background. These are the comforting things of everyday belief, rituals we don’t always recognise the value of because they are so easily recited or repeated mindlessly. (My own friends still laugh at the time I unthinkingly genuflected in the cinema as a teenager, because the idea that that was what you did when you reached the end of a row of seats came so naturally.) Later on in the film, Lady Bird is cross when she discovers that getting into the same college as her dad and brother isn’t a ‘given’; she still has to get the grades or put in the work herself. There is no legacy that can replace those things, in the same way that faith isn’t a straightforward legacy, but something you have to figure out yourself.
In one particularly symbolic scene, one of the nuns who teach at Lady Bird’s school praises the essay she has written about Sacramento, the city she can’t wait to leave. What she thinks is an angry and disparaging piece about her home is actually, the nun points out, lovingly scathing of the place in the way you are only able to be when it is your place or home town. The same feels true of church, or perhaps of faith in general; it’s only in making it your own that you are able to affectionately mock it and to pay it attention – something the nun suggests is, ultimately, the same as love.
There are some parallels with the parable of the prodigal son, although it would be too simplistic to describe the film as a direct retelling of the story. Most explorations of the parable focus on the loving father waiting at the end of the road; you don’t often hear about how important it might have been for the son to go away and make his own mistakes in order to come home again. The moment where he chooses to go back to everything he’d known and loved gets lost in the joy of the homecoming, which is a shame. Conversely, Lady Bird is the tale of how essential and formative the runaway phase can sometimes be; we never see the reunion with her mother and only hear one half of the phone call that opens up the possibility of reconciliation in their strained relationship.
What makes the beginnings of redemption at the end of the film so powerful is that, like grace, they come when Lady Bird/Christine is at her messiest, most obviously imperfect. At her lowest point, Lady Bird finds herself waking in a New York hospital bed, drunk and with tear–smudged eyeliner on her cheeks. Evidently emotionally broken and on her own in a city on the other side of the country to her family, she leaves hospital to discover it is a Sunday and stumbles into a Catholic church. Imperfect and alone, she remembers who she is.
So it is with faith. Being a stroppy and disaffected teenager, both in faith and life, is a necessary phase to go through. It might not look like the sort of semi–hedonistic rebellion that the prodigal son and Lady Bird both choose, but perhaps many of us sometimes need to turn away from the trappings of religion and belief we’ve grown up with in order to remember why they were ours in the first place. The things that we inherit make us who we are only when we choose to embrace them.
Image by A24
Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a Researcher exploring the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship, together with Church Urban Fund. She has previously worked for a social innovation think tank and a learning disability charity. @hannahmerich
Posted 23 March 2018
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