American Catholic culture after Vatican II, the culture that prevails in suburban parishes and big Catholic high schools and everywhere that the old ethnic Catholic groups live their mostly assimilated lives, has not received nearly so much artistic attention as the culture that preceded it.
There is a lively debate about whether the Catholic artist as a species has declined since its mid-20th-century prominence or whether the secular culture simply pays Catholic artists less attention. But either way it seems indisputable that everyday Catholic life itself is a less popular subject than in the days of Going My Way and J. F. Powers, and that when writers or filmmakers are drawn to Catholic subjects they tend to reach backward (as in Doubt, the recent Brooklyn, novel and film, and the works of Alice McDermott) to the lost world that Vatican II and suburbanization together unmade, rather than trying to limn the Catholic America that’s replaced it.
So Lady Bird, currently bidding to be the best-reviewed movie of this autumn, is distinctive not just for being a carefully observed coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in the obscurity of Sacramento, but also for being a carefully observed and generally sympathetic portrait of life in a Catholic high school right now, long after the revolutions of the 1960s.
The observations are those of an outsider: Even though the title character, whose real name is Christine McPherson but who insists on going by “Lady Bird,” is played by Saoirse Ronan, the same Irish actress who headlined Brooklyn, the character is not Catholic. Instead, her parents appear to be post-Protestants of some variety, barely clinging to a middle-class existence during the dot-com bust, and they have sent her to Immaculate Heart because the alternative is a public school where their older, adopted son had a knife pulled on him. So Lady Bird is in her high school but not of it, surrounded by kids for whom an Immaculate Heart education is the essence of a certain sort of Irish-Italian upper-middle-classness, while she yearns for an escape from the entire milieu — educational, familial, and geographic.
The story is somewhat autobiographical, directed by the very talented actress-writer Greta Gerwig, here making her debut behind the camera. Like many examples of its genre, Lady Bird is about realizing that your childhood and teenage environment is not the prison you imagine it — a realization, of course, that comes only once you no longer inhabit your childhood home and school.
The main imprisoning force is Christine/ Lady Bird’s mother, played with masterly weariness by Laurie Metcalf, who works long hours as a nurse and keeps house for a spouse (Tracy Letts, bearded and soft) who’s the good cop with their daughter but a depressed husband and failing breadwinner. Mother and daughter fight in the way that only people with a bone-deep bond can feud, but their link is tested when Lady Bird applies to East Coast colleges without telling her mom, getting the soft-touch dad to fill out the financial-aid forms in secret, and never considering that if she gets in, the mother she’s keeping in the dark will both lose her to the other coast and need to take out a second mortgage to pay for it.
A similar sort of mild adolescent solipsism also defines Lady Bird’s relationships at school — with the best friend she takes for granted (Beanie Feldstein); with the first-love drama-geek boyfriend whose secret she doesn’t intuit (Lucas Hedges); with the cool set she tries to join, befriending a queen bee (Odeya Rush) and dating a poor-me rich kid (Timothée Chalamet) who reads too much Howard Zinn; and with the school’s warm nun-principal (Lois Smith), whom Lady Bird plainly likes and even relies upon, but whom she also targets for a popularity-seeking prank when the social pressures of high school seem to demand it.
Those pressures and their consequences are all fairly predictable: There’s nothing groundbreaking in the beats of youthful romance, social climbing, strained friendship, and parental disappointment that Lady Bird hits along the way to its closing epiphanies. What makes the movie good is Gerwig’s careful attention to dialogue and craft, her ability to choose good actors and let them do their work, and her obvious affection for the entire Sacramentan setting, which her own creative life, like Lady Bird’s aspirational one, has required her to leave behind.
And that affection extends to the ordinary time of a very normal sort of contemporary Catholic school, to the kids’ chewing unconsecrated Communion wafers and the girls’ getting reprimanded for rolling their skirts and the well-meaning pro-life assembly (which Lady Bird disrupts, with predictably blinkered rebelliousness) and the aging nuns and the St. Louis Jesuits hymns and all the other little details that define Catholic education in the strange country of the present.
The way the movie ends — quite movingly — suggests that the effect of that education on Lady Bird, and presumably on Gerwig, is not necessarily to make the specific claims of Catholicism seem compelling, but to instill in students some general sense of the sacred, of the meaningfulness of life, that may be buried under a few layers of phony sophistication but is still readily available when needed.
That is not a small thing; indeed Gerwig’s movie suggests that, in the context of a given life, it may be a large one. Whether it is large enough to sustain the Catholic religion is another question — but not one that this particular review, which recommends seeing Lady Bird regardless of your theological commitments, is equipped to answer.