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True religion in ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Fleabag’

Marion: I want you to be the very best version of yourself you can be.

Lady Bird: What if this is the best version?

Lady Bird

I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong.


Having sadly missed my opportunity to jump on the ‘Lady Bird’-reviewing bandwagon when the film came out in 2017, I’ve now finally got around to watching it. (Thank you Netflix.) And it is irresistibly reviewable. There’s so much to talk about, and fortunately for latecomers like myself, there is perhaps even more to say about it a few years after its release.

I came away from ‘Lady Bird’ with the feeling that I had just watched something fresh and original, and yet this film also felt oddly familiar. That's partly thanks to the eclectic and appealing combination of genres; it’s a Coming of Age story, a high-school comedy, and a charming noughties period drama, with all the delightful trappings of an indie film. But it is the film’s treatment of religion that struck me most and which left me with that lingering feeling of déjà vu. Strangely enough, ‘Lady Bird’ reminds me of 'Fleabag' (Season 2). Of course, 'Fleabag' is an entirely different kind of drama; the comedy is darker, it's a TV series, and there's a strong stylistic difference too, but there are also some interesting similarities.

The eponymous characters share more than just their odd pseudonyms; Lady Bird and Fleabag are funny, impulsive, independent young women, in equal measures loveable and infuriating, both navigating the challenges of their dysfunctional families and (often peculiar) relationships. Much of the humour in these comedies lies in the incongruous placing of irreverent characters in religious settings. Lady Bird attends a Catholic high school and Fleabag finds herself pursuing a doomed romance with a celibate catholic priest, and so there are plenty of surreal moments where the protagonists’ actions feel at odds with their context; whether it’s Lady Bird and her best friend discussing orgasms whilst snacking on stolen communion wafers, or Fleabag attempting a moment of passion with the priest after confession.

And yet these dramas are far from atheistic in their outlook. Some of the most powerful moments in ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Fleabag’ take place in church. The religious characters are also depicted compassionately where they could easily have been portrayed as hypocritical pharisees. (And there are plenty of these characters to be found in film and literature; Claude Frollo in Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Comte in Chocolat, Samuel Norton in Shawshank Redemption, the Bishop in the 1991 Robin Hood film and that's just a very random selection...the list could go on…) One of my favourite supporting characters in ‘Lady Bird’ is the quirky Father Leviatch, who appears only briefly, and yet reveals to us something of the fragility of humanity. In one scene, he encourages his drama class to take part in a crying competition, only to win it himself by being the first to start sobbing. It’s a perfectly tragicomic moment. Later in the film, a conversation at the hospital alludes to his worsening depression, a subtle reminder that religion in no way makes us immune to the agonies of life.

When we look at representations of Christianity in pop culture, it is often framed as a dull, unimaginative, even inhuman way of living, and whilst this may not be the case in ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Fleabag’ where it seems priests and nuns are quite capable of having a good laugh (or cry), religion is nevertheless presented as a world that is foreign to your average young adult. It acts as a colourless, conservative backdrop against which the full spectrum of human emotion is revealed in all its richness. Traditional piety is juxtaposed with the reality of the characters’ everyday lives as though they were two completely different things.

And yet the irony is that in underlining all the mystery, messiness and unrestrained beauty of humanity, we glimpse something of the real character of God. True religion is for humans, not saints, and in this sense, ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Fleabag’ are rich with religious meaning, because they are realistic portraits of selfish, broken people. (You may have noticed that both protagonists are appallingly disloyal to their best friends.) But what is even more significant is that there is also grace for these characters.

In coming up with the concept for ‘Fleabag’, Phoebe Waller-Bridge said that she wanted “to think of the worst thing that she [Fleabag] could do, and then try and make the audience love her anyway.” Greta Gerwig, the writer of ‘Lady Bird’, also succeeds in giving us characters that are both genuinely charming and flawed. A.O. Scott puts it in this way in his New York Times review:

Ms. Gerwig… knows her characters and their world very well. Her affection envelops them like a secular form of grace: not uncritically, but unconditionally.

I wonder if there is such a thing as a ‘secular form of grace’. Can the concept of grace even exist without some understanding of the unconditional love of God? But however you might choose to answer that philosophical question, Scott’s description of ‘Lady Bird’ suggests an interesting parallel between a writer’s love of her characters and God’s deep affection for humanity. The God who knows and sees the full horror of mankind's selfish nature is certainly not ‘uncritical’ of his creation, and yet when we look at Jesus, we find that God's love is also utterly ‘unconditional’.

The strained relationships between the protagonists and their parents speak of humanity's desperate need for truly unconditional love. One of the most heart-breaking moments of ‘Lady Bird’ is the climactic argument between Lady Bird and her mum, which ends with her mother's stubborn silence:

Lady Bird: I’m sorry, I know I can lie and not be a good person but please, Mom, please I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you - I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, I’m ungrateful and I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry I wanted more. TALK TO ME! MOM! MOM! PLEASE! TALK TO ME. I know, I know, I know I’m so bad, just please! PLEASE.

This scene is as an incredibly moving portrayal of our deepest anxieties as human beings and provokes us to consider some pretty huge questions: When it comes down to it, are we actually just bad people? Can anyone ever love us for who we truly are? And will we find forgiveness, especially from those we love and hurt the most? Lady Bird’s desperate plea is the closest we get to a heartfelt prayer of confession.

The final scene is an understated and yet satisfying end to the film. Lady Bird walks into church after a messy night of drinking, she sheds a tear as she listens to the choir, and then leaves to ring her mum. It feels like a kind of awakening. The moment marks the beginning of a reconciliation, both with her mother and with herself, as she finally acknowledges and accepts her birth name. The prodigal daughter returns, at least in heart.

‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Fleabag’ both offer, in their own ways, a belief in unconditional love, however imperfect this love may sometimes be. Even if these dramas are agnostic in their conclusions, they point us to a key truth about the human condition: we will always yearn for the unconditional love of a parent. Without the knowledge and security of this kind of love, we inevitably find ourselves lost.

Where Christine’s mum is silent, and where Fleabag’s mum is painfully absent, the father in the original ‘prodigal’ narrative is attentive to the cry of his child. The biblical story tells us that He accepts us as we are, even though our attempts at the “best version of ourselves’ are far from perfect. He loves us through our confusion, however badly we've “been getting it wrong.”

The final lines of ‘Lady Bird’ strike me as a beautiful reminder of the Christian response to the unconditional love of the Father. In Lady Bird's faltering words to her mother, I find an echo of the heart’s simple praise to God:

“But I wanted to tell you. I love you. Thank you, I’m... thank you.”

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