‘Lady Bird’ Is Director Greta Gerwig’s Theological Ode to the Value of Catholic Education

The Friars of Fenwick should cheer for her breath of fresh air as this year’s Oscar winners unfold on Sunday!

By John Paulett

“Lady Bird” won the Golden Globe for Best Film (Musical or Comedy) and is nominated as Best Film at Sunday’s 90th Academy Awards (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual “Oscar” event). The intimate and sweet film tells the story of Christine McPherson, a senior at Immaculate Heart High School in 2002 Sacramento, CA. Christine goes by what she calls her “given name:” Lady Bird. She explains to anyone who asks that it is her given name because she gave the name Lady Bird to herself. We feel in her self-naming that Lady Bird is someone special, a young woman who just hasn’t found a good way to fit in.

The film is unusual because it does not make fun of Catholic schools or demonize religious teachers. “Lady Bird” feels more like a love letter to a Catholic High School. Director Greta Gerwig, who attended a Catholic high school, seems to have understood the real character of Catholic education. Most films, songs and books about Catholic education focus on the oddities (“Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?”). Nuns often seem quaint characters or fierce tyrants. Catholic students are either beaten down or rebellious (Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young”). There is none of this in “Lady Bird.”

The priests might be a little eccentric, but they are passionate and caring. The director of the high school musical is a Jesuit who has an emotional breakdown when audiences just do not get his interpretation of “Merrily We Roll Along.” His distress is funny when considered in light of the original production’s New York audiences, who were bewildered by Hal Prince’s first staging of the play. After he falls apart, he is replaced as drama director for Shakespeare’s “Tempest” by a priest who is also the JV football coach. The good father is better at designing offensive football plays than he is at directing a play, so the staging is planned in diagrams of X’s and O’s. Still, the coach-priest brings the same commitment and excitement to iambic pentameter as he does to Friday-night lights.

The counselor (Sister Sarah-Joan, played to perfection by veteran actress Lois Smith) is warm, funny and understanding. She compliments Lady Bird on her drawings of Sacramento, saying that her art demonstrates a lot of love for the city. Lady Bird cannot accept the kind words and shrugs them off by saying she simply pays attention. The nun responds, “Don’t you think that might be the same thing? Love and attention?”

Grace = Love and Acceptance

Here is where the theology surfaces. Love and attention are the same thing in Catholic belief. Catholics believe that God is not impersonal. The world was not created by a Divine Watchmaker and set spinning. God is deeply and lovingly concerned with every person, every creature. God pays attention. It is what our theology refers to as “grace.”

Actress Saoirse Ronan (left) portays Lady Bird, and Laurie Metcalf plays her mother.

Ultimately, “Lady Bird” is a film of grace and a film about grace. Lady Bird laments to her mother, “What if this is the best version [of myself]?” This is the question that teachers in Catholic schools attempt to help their students answer every day. Because of our deep commitment to the idea of creation imago dei (we are created in the image of God), we nurture in our students a deep faith that they are the people God created them to be.

Living a life of grace is not easy for teachers or students, even in a Catholic school. The character of Lady Bird reminds many of us of what it felt like to be an outsider. Students at Fenwick and throughout our society face substantial challenges. They are under stress about college admissions and careers. Some suffer from depression and anxiety. Many face the temptations of alcohol and other substances. Young people struggle with sexuality and identity.

For all of the students who are trying to work their way through the tangle of adolescence, there is a message in “Lady Bird.” You are loved and accepted. That is grace. You may find a different version of yourself tomorrow or in some years, but today this is the best version of you. God, and all of the community of the school, are paying attention to you. And that is love.

The 34-year-old Gerwig garnered the first female director nomination in eight years.

In an interview with America magazine, Ms. Gerwig said, “I was so interested in … taking something that just looks like … an annoying teenage girl and then giving her the experience of what I think of as grace.” Grace, for Gerwig, is “wholly unearned. In some ways it’s inexplicable.”

And so, in the film, we see a world of grace. Lady Bird’s mother is hard-working but often mean and uncaring. Her father is out of work and depressed, but he dotes on his daughter. The priests are struggling; the nuns have senses of humor. A young man is frightened and closeted. Old friends can be hurt and drift away, but they are there when you need them most.

Even though “Lady Bird” focuses on an all-girls school (the brother school St. Ignatius is nearby) and it takes place many years after I finished high school, it felt like my experience of Catholic education. There many myths and legends that float around that don’t match what I saw as a student or have seen in many years of teaching in Catholic schools. People talk about mean nuns who hit students on the knuckles. I never saw that. I only saw hard-working, sensitive and talented women who dedicated their lives to educating young people. I have heard Catholic school teachers caricatured as close-minded and overly strict. What I have observed are highly talented educators who share a set of values that includes both excellence and kindness.

“Lady Bird” is a lovely little film. I recognize in the lead character many young people who have come through my classroom. Perhaps I see a bit of myself as well. At the end of the film, when Lady Bird is feeling at her lowest, she goes into a church in New York and lets the liturgy wash over her. She feels as if she has come home. That is a good description of the Church, and of the schools that do its work. We pay attention to people. We allow the grace of God to fill our halls. We work to create an institution of love. That is probably why so many graduates of Catholic schools always feel that coming back to Fenwick, or any of their alma maters, is coming home.

Just for fun: Read Slate.com’s “8 Most Catholic-school Things About ‘Lady Bird.'”

About the Author

John Paulett teaches Moral Theology to third-year students at Fenwick.

Mr. Paulett teaches Expressive Arts and Moral Theology at Fenwick; he also is the school’s Photography Club moderator. A native of Ohio, John attended St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, then earned a B.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University. He also holds an M.A. degree in Theology from Felician College, an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Antioch University, and is currently pursuing post-graduate work in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. In 2013, Mr. Paulett was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Education. He has also been recognized as “Heart of the School” by the Archdiocese of Chicago. John “moonlights” as an Adjunct Professor, National Louis University in Chicago. Outside the classroom, the versatile Mr. Paulett has published histories of Chicago, a book on prayer and spirituality, and several plays (“Lost Chicago,” “Forgotten Chicago,” “Printers Row,” “Pentecost,” and “Peanuts, Popcorn and Prayer”). He also is an actor, appearing on stage and in film, including the award-winning short film “The European Kid.” 

Read his earlier blog post.

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