If the film, Lady Bird, had been set in a bordello on the border ~ the cruelties and crudities of teenage bordello life would have been front and center in the promotion. If it had been set at a juvenile detention center in a struggling inner city ~ the derelict denial of resources and treatment for incarcerated teenagers would have been banner headlines in the reviews.
However, the trailer, promotion and reviews describe the setting of Lady Bird simply as “in a high school.” Yup. This coming-of-age tale of a middle-class girl, her silly friends, and her controlling mother who just doesn’t understand was primarily set in a high school.
What is not mentioned anywhere that I could find is that the high school is a Catholic, religious high school. Why is that important detail not mentioned? Perhaps it is because religion in general and Catholicism in specific are, well, currently out of vogue.
Religion, in the popular culture, nowadays, is like hemorrhoids. We know they exist out there somewhere and some people suffer under their influence. It is known to be a pain in the butt, but we just tend to collectively not talk about it. Religion and hemorrhoids are simply not the makings of polite conversation.
That said, the setting of Lady Bird in a Catholic high school is very important to acknowledge and talk about because it provides the context for the spiritual journey of young Lady Bird’s soul.
Like the poems of William Blake, Lady Bird is both “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found” ~ not in the context of the transitions from innocence to experience in the late 1700’s ~ but in the context of a girl’s physical, emotional and spiritual transitions in Sacramento, California in the early 2000’s.
In the subtleties and nuances of this deeply spiritual film, we witness a teenage girl desperate for meaning and purpose in a superficial world populated by barely conscious people. Lady Bird yearns to fly and soar but her wings are clipped by well-intentioned people whose own lives never got off the ground and who, unconsciously, believe the solution to the soaring spirit of Lady Bird is to keep her grounded.
Lady Bird yearns to be free. She dreams of going to Yale, but with her idiosyncrasies and mediocre grades; she will, according to her own mother as they argue in the car ~ Lady Bird will be going to city college, and then to jail, and then back to city college where she will finally “learn to pull herself up.” At hearing that (spoiler alert): Lady Bird throws herself out of the moving vehicle.
That, to put it mildly, is a desire to escape that many persons, including myself, can identify with. As a high school teenager yearning to be free of the mass numbness and dumbness I saw in my family, school and society ~ I sought escape, not by hurling myself out of a car ~ but by hurling myself into a drug and alcohol altered reality that I thought was far preferable, until it almost killed me. Tis a far better thing to die interesting than to live boring. Once free of the unquenchable demons unleashed by alcohol and drug ~ I turned to the fairer angels of art through which I continued my quest to create an alternative life above and beyond the muddy wheel rut into which I had been born.
Many religious strands are woven deeply into the fabric of Ladybird. The film begins with vacuous recitations of prayers and petitions for mercy by students assembled in the high school gym as they mouth the words to “Hail Mary” and the “Lord’s Prayer” that start the school day.
I offer no rebuttal to the proposition that Lady Bird is an exceptionally troubled, yet vibrant spirit. We the viewers feel the shackles that the educational and religious institutions place on youth when conformity, not authenticity, is what is valued and demanded.
But beneath the forms and uniforms of religious education that we so readily dismissed as stupid and archaic in today’s increasingly secular world, lies a yearning for meaning and purpose.
One beacon of light in the darkness of school life is a passionate, loving and supportive priest who teaches the acting class. He believes in, encourages and supports the student actors. This priest is one of those rare teachers that can leave a positive, lifelong impression on a young, unformed, insecure soul. The priest, like his students, is deeply human. He struggles with personal grief and is the first to cry in the class he is teaching on “Authenticity.” When the school play is finally produced, he laments, to himself, that the people in the audience “just didn’t get it.” In a room of teenagers and their families after the show, his depression and Shakespearian sense of futility is palpable ~ just as is the sense of futility in Lady Bird and other students in their young lives of angst and doubt.
We later see the priest with his psychotherapist, revealing how he ~ though of a different ethnicity, age and gender ~ struggles with many of the same issues as does young Lady Bird. Shortly after the scene with the psychotherapist, the priest drops out of his job as teacher and director of the young actors and disappears from the film. He is a foreshadowing of what may be the fate of Lady Bird, and is the fate of many others who abandon their call to dream, to hope, to reinvent themselves and to be transformed by remaining faithful to their spiritual quest and journey.
Another memorable character ~ the Mother Superior of the school ~ offers wise and worldly advice to young Lady Bird, even when she is the brunt of Lady Bird’s jokes; such as when Lady Bird tied cans and a sign “Just Married to Jesus” to the back of the nun’s car. Later, when Lady Bird is called into the Mother Superior’s office; the supposedly strict nun lovingly says that she thought the prank was funny, and that she actually does feel that she has been married to Jesus “for over forty years.” It is a touching, spiritual, loving, non-judgmental encounter between two women who seek a bonding to a power greater than themselves.
The film even ends with Lady Bird engaging in a long night of drunkenness, puking, sex with a stranger, and being taken to the hospital. The following morning, she leaves the hospital and goes, with streaked makeup from the night before ~ to a church, listens to the choir in rehearsal, and has a silent epiphany, a spiritual awakening of some sort and emerges from the church with profound sense of authenticity that it seems she had been fruitlessly seeking in family, society, school and in life all along.
Like a Pope who claims a new name upon their accession; like the Biblical character, Jacob, who wrestles with an angel and receives a blessing and a name change to Israel ~ Lady Bird receives a name change as well. Lady Bird returns to her birth name. She is once again, Christine. It is difficult to overlook the first six letters of her name.
This piece is previously and recently published in The Porch Magazine.
Dwight Lee Wolter