Taking the Oscar Bait: Lady Bird’s Augustinian Restlessness

Taking the Oscar Bait: Lady Bird’s Augustinian Restlessness February 21, 2018
Lady Bird Promo Material
A24

Warning: the following post is full of spoilers.
Lady Bird is available to stream from Amazon.
Be sure to vet the potential conscience issues of this film before watching.

Augustine of Hippo is the rare theologian admired by both Protestants and Catholics.  This is, at least in part, because of the visceral, uncontrived way he wrote about his longing for God.

Augustine was a man who knew what it was to seek after fulfillment in every arena under the son – as a young man he gave himself to various philosophical and quasi-religious movements as well as drinking often at the well of carnal indulgence.  At a point of spiritual crisis he found deliverance through the words of Romans 13:13-14.

Ten years after his baptism Augustine sat down to compose a prayer, one that would take him five years to complete, and in doing so very well may have created the first autobiography.  His Confessions is a classic not just of the Patristic era in which he wrote but in all of Western literature.  The work is eminently quotable but perhaps the most enduring lines are his summary of the human condition before the Creator:

“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

In such a small sentence Augustine concisely captures the truth that where we come from inescapably shapes who we are and also directs the course of our life.

One could be forgiven for wondering if in the fictional world of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird the titular character (who was educated in a Catholic school) ever encountered these words of Augustine’s.  If so surely Lady Bird would have felt herself connected across the centuries with a kindred soul.

Lady Bird’s Augustinian Restlessness

In a way reminiscent of Augustine’s timeless appeal Lady Bird connects with audiences in 2018 because the viewer remembers the kind of coming-of-age dissatisfaction with the known that Saoirse Ronan so masterfully portrays as Lady Bird.  It should be no surprise that just as the high school classes of the late 90s and early 2000s enter the ennui of 30-somethingness a film set in their formative years rises to capture mass appeal.  However, that doesn’t mean that the nostalgic effect of this film should be despised; Lady Bird looks back on the past in the same way we look back on a home that was flawed but loving – much like Lady Bird’s childhood home.  That Gerwig roots her story so thoroughly in nostalgia without falling off the cliff into sentimentality is a credit to her skill as a writer and director.

One of the earliest – and most charming – insights we get into Lady Bird’s mind is her frustrated and sweetly naïve declaration, “I hate California, I want to go to the east coast. I want to go where culture is like, New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire.”  Lady Bird is a young lady restless – restless for something more than she finds in her (apparently) backwater hometown Sacramento.

Also like Augustine Lady Bird attempts to quench her dissatisfaction by changing her social circles.  For Augustine this played out through an alignment with the Manichees, for Lady Bird it plays out in distancing herself from old friend Julie, she of the theater students set, in favor of the more socially affluent kids represented in first Jenna and then Kyle.

Certainly the name “Lady Bird” evidences the young lady’s heart, showing that her dissatisfaction with Sacramento is ultimately a dissatisfaction with the life her parents have created.  This shows up on a smaller scale with Lady Bird’s attempt to ingratiate herself with rich girl Jenna by lying about where Lady’s Bird’s family lives.  More significantly, Lady Bird attempts to break with the unsatisfying elements of her home by breaking with her given name, Christine.  This is an instinctively reasonable step; since the days of Adam’s creation and coronation the giving of a name to a thing has been a way to communicate authority over that thing.

Frustration Exhausted

The story of Lady Bird records Lady Bird finding that her attempts at self-creation, self-definition, and self-satisfaction all end in failure.  The cool kids give Lady Bird some good times but also a deeply unsatisfying first sexual experience and a too-cool-for-school prom night.  Lady Bird’s fabrication of her address is exposed.  By the end of the film she is also re-evaluating the replacement of Christine with Lady Bird.  In fact, the viewer is left with the conclusion that finally reaching “where culture is” in the undergraduate program of her dreams is as jarring to Lady Bird as being hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.

The most unexpected element of the film is its ending.  Lady Bird finds herself first in church – a Catholic church, by the way, which is perhaps the closest she can return to the Catholic school she had formerly felt so trapped by – and then outside of that church leaving a voicemail for her mother wondering about their mutual experience of driving around Sacramento and expressing thanks for the name Christine, a name that this former Lady Bird now sees as a good name.  Christine has explored her options, her hoped-for deliverers, and found them full of the same kind of dissatisfaction she had hoped to leave behind in her old life.  By the time we leave her Christine is (if not fully the young woman formerly known as Lady Bird) at least re-examining her identity as a product of her hometown, her religious education, and her parents’ home.

This is not to suggest that Christine hopped the next flight back home to Sacramento.  Rather she appears to have grown beyond a simplistic rejection of what she had known in her formative years into an ability to appreciate the good that was part of her early days and to take real steps toward reconciling with what she had previously rejected most explicitly by expressing appreciation for her mother.  That the viewer knows what Christine doesn’t, namely that her mother had rushed into the airport looking for the departing Christine, leaves us with hope that this reconciliation has good prospects.

Restlessness Ending in Rest

Augustine of Hippo found that his restlessness in life was a product of his Creator’s design.  The One who had launched Augustine into existence had structured his life in such a way that Augustine could rest only when he lived in line with his Creator’s design.  Lady Bird finds that being Christine is a good thing in a way that being Lady Bird can’t fully bring to pass.  Christine’s parents had built a life for her early years – through the town and house and school and family life they had created – that had given her a deep restlessness but restlessness that came full circle to resting in the goodness of that creation even as it launched her into the future awaiting her.  The very environment that had left Lady Bird uncomfortable became a place of rest for Christine.

It turns out then that Augustine and Christine are kindred souls as much as Augustine and Lady Bird were.  The latter knew together what it was to squirm and itch under the discomfort of a world too limited and too constricting to find final joy in.  The former, however, have learned how to see in and through the discomfort of life in an unsatisfying world to the One in whom they may find satisfaction and the rest it brings.

Thus Lady Bird isn’t just telling the story of the people who graduated from High School around Y2K.  The film isn’t even telling the story of a theologian from North Africa living 1600 years ago.  Apparently Lady Bird is another telling of the story we and everyone we’ve ever known is in – the one about a people expelled from a good garden and thrust into a world of thorns and sweat and pain yet also given the hope of an eternal city where the promise of rest remains.  As people of the garden we aren’t surprised to find that this world of thorns is the kind of world that makes us feel restless.  Our origin in the garden keeps us stirred up in the world of thorns, continually looking for that city of rest.  Like Lady Bird where we are from keeps shaping the course of where we are going.  And like Lady Bird we might just find that where we are going to find rest will turn out to be a lot like the garden we came from.  Little wonder then that so many of our number have found Lady Bird deeply compelling.
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