A Catholic movie is almost instantly recognizable, even to people who have never stepped inside a church. Crucifixes, clerical collars, and the host are familiar props, as are ceremonies such as Communion and the procession. Think of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s iconic and sublime The Passion of Joan of Arc from 1928, or more recently, the wild horror of The Exorcist and the melodrama of The Passion of the Christ. All of them trade in a language that, accurately or not, reflects a popular understanding of the religion.
“Catholic characters, spaces, and rituals have been stock features in popular films since the silent picture era,” writes the University of Utah historian Colleen McDannell. “An intensely visual religion with a well-defined ritual and authority system, Catholicism lends itself to the drama and pageantry—the iconography—of film.”
Catholicism’s presence in films goes beyond the visuals. Such a rich theological and historical tradition can bear grand themes: loss, redemption, mystery, grace. The best recent example is Pawel Pawlikowski’s sublime Ida, where the washed-out, grayscale color palette illuminates the ripped and guilty edges of post-Holocaust Christianity.
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, is a different kind of Catholic film. The story follows a young woman who calls herself Lady Bird (played by Saoirse Ronan), about to graduate from a Catholic high school in Sacramento. The movie has been nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director.
Everything about the movie seems small. Sacramento feels claustrophobic, the school is unremarkable, and even Christine’s self-chosen name, Lady Bird, feels like exactly the sort of thing a teenager doesn’t realize sounds silly. Gerwig the director doesn’t dramatize, however: The chapel settings and nuns’ habits are as ordinary and undramatic as everything else about the world Lady Bird is desperate to escape. Her teachers—many of them members of religious orders—are neither stereotypical scolds nor sinister figures. Instead, they are presented as normal, kind people with lives of their own and extraordinary patience for the teenagers they work with.
The film is a coming-of-age tale for a young woman deciding who she wants to be, and often hurting people in the process. Lady Bird’s mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, feels the rejection keenly, saying, “Whatever we give you, it’s never enough. It’s never enough.” The fact that Lady Bird is in Catholic school at all is a signal of how cherished she is. Her family has scrimped to send her there because her mother says the local high school is dangerous. But the school’s uniforms don’t quite do their job of obscuring class. On and off campus, everyone can still see the wealthy students’ expensive cars and nice haircuts and large houses.
Lady Bird tries and fails to join this world. She spends Thanksgiving with her first boyfriend’s large, wealthy family, and later tries to join a clique led by a popular girl, Jenna, who hems her skirts a good 5 inches too short and spends her afternoons in her parents’ backyard pool. The jig is up when Jenna tries to stop by Lady Bird’s house and finds that she lied about which side of the tracks she lives on. When Lady Bird asks if they can still be friends, Jenna says that as long as Lady Bird is still dating one of her friends, “I guess I’ll see you around.” Lady Bird doesn’t understand yet that this is not acceptance, much less friendship.
To understand how the movie would be perceived by Catholics, I called Sister Rose Pacatte, a nun who writes a popular review series called “Sister Rose at the Movies” for Patheos. She’s also the founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies, an arm of the Daughters of St. Paul. I asked her what made Lady Bird different from other movies with strong Catholic settings, and she said, “Because it was real.” She reminded me of a scene where Lady Bird and a pal are lounging on the floor at school, with their feet up against the wall, snacking on the (unconsecrated) Communion wafers. “They’re kids,” she said. “Of course, they’re doing that. It’s totally authentic.”
That authenticity, she went on to say, is the real quality that makes the movie Catholic. She told me that she went to a screening of Annabelle: Creation, a horror movie about a demon-infested doll who takes advantage of a botched exorcism to find a human host. After the screening, she asked the director if he’d brought on a consultant or a priest to make the film accurate to exorcism rituals, or if he’d just watched a bunch of other exorcism films. It was the latter. The Bible pages papering the walls in the movie, a trope that appeared in both The Omen and The Body, had tipped her off.
It’s a similar tendency towards making things “look right” that constantly trips up Lady Bird. She wants to go to the East Coast college her family can’t afford because it seems like what college is supposed to be like. “I want to go where culture is,” she says. “New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods.” Her bedroom walls are covered in quotes and drawings, and she runs for class president mostly just because she can. One of her teachers puts it very nicely as suggests Lady Bird try out for the school play: “You seem to have a performative streak.”
Yet despite all this longing for something—anything—to happen, Lady Bird is totally blind to the fact that, right around her, all the time, important things are happening. Her mother works double shifts at a mental health center where one of her teachers seeks help. Her father loses his job and income in a blow that’s compounded by having to compete on the job market with his son. Her first boyfriend is coming to terms with his own homosexuality, and what his family will think—an agony she doesn’t see until he breaks down sobbing in her arms. Lady Bird herself wears a pink cast throughout the movie, which she earned when she jumped out of a moving car to end a fight with her mother. The stories are there. She just doesn’t know how to recognize them.
Even in the grand, religious chapel where she and the other students have their assemblies, she isn’t paying attention. Surrounded by symbols of sacrifice and grace in the form of stained glass, crucifixes, altars, and worn wooden pews, she and her classmates whisper and one reaches over during prayer to pull another’s hair. To anyone who spends a lot of time around teenagers, it’s pretty much perfect.
It’s not until the end of the movie that you see the perception start to shift for Lady Bird. She’s made it to New York, where no one around her gets why Sacramento felt small and stifling. No one knows her mom called her Christine, so there’s no reason to call herself Lady Bird. Isolated and bewildered, she gets dangerously drunk at a dorm room party.
When she wakes up in a hospital recovery room, she sees a small boy with a bandage on his head, sitting in his mother’s arms. It’s as if she can suddenly see all the injuries that were invisible to her before: her family and friends and teachers who had their own struggles. She walks home through the city, stopping in a church to listen to the choir sing something she’s heard probably hundreds of times before. You can see her hearing it for the first time.
What’s unique about this moment is that it’s not about the church or the choir. The movie doesn’t proselytize. Gerwig, who grew up Unitarian Universalist but attended Catholic school, appears to have too much respect for Catholicism, and religious tradition in general, to let Lady Bird or the audience off that easy. Instead, she shows a young woman learning why the adults around her were working so very, very hard to be nice. The symbolic touchpoints of the religion that were in the background the whole time—forgiveness, grace, and compassion, as well as their mirrors of guilt, shame, and self-flagellation—make sense only once they’re no longer background noise.
In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Gerwig said that one of her inspirations for the film was reading about the lives of saints, especially their imperfections. She says, “I was always interested in who they were as people and that they both were these people who were divinely inspired, but they were also kind of just annoying teenagers.”
Ultimately, Lady Bird is a love song to growing up and to growing out of your own selfishness. She isn’t a saint, but neither is anyone else. They’re all just trying to be good, which is as difficult as ever.
Xarissa Holdaway works at Postlight, a digital product studio in New York City.