“Do I look like I’m from Sacramento?”
“You are from Sacramento.”
Greta Gerwig’s 2018 film Lady Bird explores the relationship between identity, freedom, and givenness with painstaking attention to mundane details. An homage to her hometown of Sacramento, California, the film’s plot develops within Lady Bird’s (the main character, whose given name is Christine) tendentious relationship with the city of Sacramento. Her choice to jettison “Christine” and go by “Lady Bird” seems to parallel her yearning to escape Sacramento for a city “where culture is” like New York.
The central theme of givenness and adolescent freedom gives way to a more covert tension, perhaps unbeknownst to the director, between what Charles Taylor calls a porous world, sometimes also called an enchanted world, and the buffered, disenchanted world of the modern west. The city of Sacramento, named by Spanish missionaries after the sacrament of the Eucharist, serves as a vehicle for the playing out of this tension throughout the film.
We are introduced to Lady Bird and her mother, Marion, as they finish a trip visiting a nearby college. The drama of givenness is manifested most intensely in their relationship, beginning with Marion smoothing out the comforter on the motel room bed. “You know you don’t have to do that,” Lady Bird reminds her. Lady Bird is easily put off by her mother’s sharp, at times obsessive, attention to detail…especially the seemingly useless or unnecessary ones.
On the ride home, Lady Bird expresses her desire to “live through something.” She hates California and wants to go to college in New York. Marion’s expectations of diligence and respect, along with her stubborn realism (“your father and I can’t afford for you to go to school out of state”) clashes with Lady Bird’s free spirit and idealism (“there are loans, scholarships…”). Marion retaliates by calling her Christine (in the original French means “follower of Christ”).
“My name is Lady Bird.”
“Well actually it’s not, and it’s ridiculous.”
Lady Bird opens the door of the moving car, thrusting herself away from her mother, and metaphorically, away from everything that represents the lot given her in life. The scene shifts to the opening credits which run while Lady Bird is at a school Mass. The camera zooms in on her cast which loudly reads “F*ck you mom” in black Sharpie ink.
Throughout the Mass, Lady Bird repeats the responses of the liturgy, and eventually lines up to receive the Eucharist. She crosses her arms over her chest, however, opting to receive a blessing instead of the sacrament. We see her ambivalence toward the sacrament once again when she’s lounging around the sacristy with her best friend Julie, discussing masturbation and munching on a tub of communion wafers. “You’re not supposed to be eating those!” interjects Coleen, their goody-two-shoes classmate. “But they’re not consecrated…” she responds, nonchalantly, and laughs.
The film is littered with instances in which Lady Bird intuits the inherent value of what’s been given to her and the extent to which it constitutes her identity, but willfully rejects it for more glamorous, self-constructed options.
Take her friendship with the plumpy, less-than-fabulous Julie, with whom Lady Bird shares childhood memories and inside jokes, and on whose shoulder she isn’t afraid to cry. They both act in the drama club and feel at home with each others’ families. This all changes when in an attempt to glam up her reputation, Lady Bird ditches Julie and drama club practice for the rich, popular Jenna.
Lady Bird tries to catch her attention by calling their teacher, Sister Sarah Joan a cu*t after she scolded Jenna for hiking up her skirt. “But I thought you said you loved Sarah Joan…” interjects Julie, inconveniently. Lady Bird then schemes up a way to “get back at Sarah Joan,” convincing Jenna to help her decorate the nun’s car with streamers and balloons, writing “Just Married to Jesus” on the rear window.
Further cementing her new badgirl MO, she gets kicked out of school for telling a pro-life speaker featured at an all school assembly, “if your mother had gotten the abortion, we wouldn’t have to sit here listening to this boring assembly.” In a further attempt to impress Jenna, she tells her that her ex-boyfriend’s grandmother’s mansion is her house, hiding the fact that her true home is on “the wrong side of the tracks,” as she puts it.
In all of these instances, Lady Bird struggles with the tension between the complicated beauty of the givenness of her identity, and the more palatable, though less authentic, lifestyle she dreams up for herself. She reluctantly recognizes the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the dignity of chastity, the gift of maternal love, the spousal nature of consecrated virginity, and the sacredness of unborn life. Thus is the drama of the sacraments, and of the implications of her namesake. To be “Christine”–a follower of Christ–is to embrace the fact that the Source of Beauty chose to reveal itself in the messiness of the flesh and the mundane reality of everyday life.
Other scenes flesh out the sacramentality of sex, chastity and virginity. At first she dates Danny, who she does not have sex with because (aside from his same-sex attraction) he tells her he respects her too much to use her for pleasure. After walking in on him kissing another boy, she pursues Kyle, the badboy anarchist who prides himself on breaking all the rules and “not participating in the economy.”
After telling her that he also is a virgin, they decide to have sex while hanging out on a Sunday afternoon. He climaxes, without much regard for Lady Bird’s experience of the sexual encounter. He then reveals that he isn’t a virgin after all (and lost count of how many partners he actually had), and blames her for being disappointed that it wasn’t as “special” as she had wanted it to be. “You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life.” What of her desire to be valued for her dignity and not used for pleasure? Sex, when directed toward something less than the affirmation of the person through the ends of unity and procreation, is less satisfying…no matter how “normal” Kyle tells her the experience is.
This scene is juxtaposed with what we could call her primary conversion through an encounter with Sr. Sarah Joan. Expecting to be chastised for pranking her, the sister laughs, and reminds Lady Bird that what she intended to be a joke was actually a true statement: “but to be clear, I’m not ‘just married to Jesus.’ We’ve been together for forty years.” This response of mercy takes her by surprise, as she recognizes the wisdom within Sarah Joan’s virginal gaze, a gaze which “perceives” and “penetrates the fullness of reality,” as theologian Luigi Giussani would put it.
She is taken further aback when Sister tells her “you clearly love Sacramento.”
“You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care.”
“Well, I was just describing it.”
“Well, it comes across as love.”
“Sure, I guess I pay attention.”
“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing — love and attention?”
Sr. Sarah Joan knows Lady Bird’s true identity better than she does herself. The sister, whose consecrated virginity embodies the summit of obedience to the givenness of human existence, makes Lady Bird question her resistance to everything that’s been given to her. Are the family, friends, city, circumstances, and name given to her really a curse, or a blessing disguised in mundane clothing? Are her mother’s most frustrating idiosyncrasies really a form of love? The sister’s penetrating gaze strips away her attempts to construct the ideal life she has dreamed up for herself, and liberates her to embrace the given.
After her mother finds out that Lady Bird hid her acceptance letter from NYU, she punishes her with the silent treatment, even after Lady Bird’s numerous attempts to apologize for her ungratefulness and disrespect. “Please mom, just…please,” her voice quivers, giving expression to the anguish in her heart, the longing for her maternal embrace, “just talk to me.” The silent treatment continues up until the day of her departure for New York City, only for her mother to tearfully regret her cold-heartedness the minute after dropping Lady Bird off at the gate.
Lady Bird undergoes a conversion of heart during her first night in New York…which was perhaps the fruit of her last encounter with Sr. Sarah Joan. She approaches a boy at a party and asks him, “do you believe in God?”
“Uh, because that’s ridiculous?”
“People call each other by names that their parents made up for them, but they won’t believe in God…” she mumbles to herself.
“What’s your name?”
How can we accept the givenness of our names, and not the givenness of our existence? She recognizes in this moment the cognitive dissonance of a culture that claims that truth is relative and an identity is something we can invent for ourselves.
After drinking a little too much and vomiting in the young man’s dorm room, she wakes up in a hospital bed. She looks down and reads “Christine McPherson” on her hospital bracelet. She looks up and sees a mother embracing her small son whose left eye is covered with a patch on the bed across from hers. This almost Marian image echoes the symbolism of her relationship with her mother and with Sr. Sarah Joan. It is through Mary, the archetypal maternal figure, that the Truth enters the flesh. It is through the embrace of her earthly mother that Christine first receives her identity, and the embrace of her spiritual mother that brings her to a more mature understanding of who she is. She stares at the one-eyed boy, and looks down again, perhaps in shameful recognition of her own blindness to the gift of maternal love.
Making her way out to the streets, she hears church bells in the distance and asks a random passerby what day it is: “Sunday.” She wanders her way into the church where the sound of the bells and the harmonies of the choir seem to be beckoning her, calling for her to enter. She breaks down in tears, contemplating the sights and sounds of this sacramental space whose beauty gives flesh to the goodness of the order of creation. It is within the Church, within Her maternal embrace, in communion with the Head, the Origin, the Source of our being, truth, and identity, that we are most ourselves.
She leaves the church and immediately calls her mom, beginning her voicemail by saying, “it’s Christine.” As she continues her voice message, she flashes back to her first time driving through the streets of Sacramento. Humdrum as they are, they evoke a sense of affection and nostalgia in her voice, once again echoing Sarah Joan’s assertion about love and attention. Christine recognizes that it is only within receiving that which is given– her name, family, and hometown….her being created by Another–that she begins to discover the truth of who she is.
By the way, it’s Greta Gerwig.
I love this review of Lady Bird. I need to rewatch her films, but I have a strong impression that this struggle with the given vs buffered or constructed self is a big thing for Gerwig. Mistress America, if I remember right, explores this theme, though Gerwig was in it as an actress rather than director, and I would think that if I rewatched it attentively I could pick it out in Little Women.