Three young ministers discuss Lady Bird, powerful storytelling, and hopes and possibilities for Unitarian Universalist ritual.
Saoirse Ronan plays the title character in Lady Bird, a new film by Greta Gerwig. ( © A24/Courtesy Everett Collection)
This article contains spoilers.
Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird portrays the senior year of Christine (played by Saoirse Ronan), a misfit who wants to be called Lady Bird. Critics love the film, and it’s faring well at the box office and likely to pick up several awards.
Gerwig—an actor, playwright, and screenwriter who makes her solo directing debut with Lady Bird—was raised Unitarian Universalist in Sacramento, California. She set a scene in her 2012 film Frances Ha in her home congregation and spoke to UU World about her Unitarian Universalism in 2013. Although Lady Bird does not mention Unitarian Universalism, religion and community are vital to the story.
UU World invited three Unitarian Universalist religious professionals in their twenties to watch the film and discuss it with each other. Aisha Ansano is a ministerial intern at First Church in Boston and a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School; Abigail Clauhs is a hospital chaplain in Portland, Oregon; and the Rev. Hannah Roberts Villnave is minister of the UU Church of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
They discuss the film’s plot—spoiler alert!—and reflect on the power of seeing themselves represented through the story in terms of generation, gender, class, and family. They also talk about religious ritual—as it lives in the film, as it exists in Unitarian Universalist spaces, and as they wish it could be in the UU faith.
We identify each writer by their first name, as they did themselves throughout the dialogue. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity, but retains much of the style of communication the three writers used throughout their conversation, which took place on Facebook Messenger over the course of one weekend evening.
Hannah Roberts Villnave: I really enjoyed Lady Bird. It was so interesting to see that kind of mother-daughter relationship played out on screen. But I most appreciated all the things that didn’t happen. The queer kid didn’t kill himself (or end up horribly maladjusted), the parents didn’t get divorced, the rich girl didn’t ruin her life forever, and the fat friend at no point ever really seemed to be on a diet. So often, stories lean on those stereotypical, tired tropes to get our emotions going or to make us connect, but it’s such lazy storytelling.
Aisha Ansano: I thought it was a pretty good movie, though I didn’t love it. Some of the relationships felt two-dimensional to me, and there were several places I was hoping for a little more depth or conversation. I was especially struck by the treatment of class, the focus on a family that was working class and the realities of the stress it would put on the family to send her to private school, her insecurities being around rich kids, etc. I was fascinated by the portrayals of Mass and religious rituals, especially given that Lady Bird and her family aren’t Catholic.
Abigail Clauhs: This movie seriously felt like Greta Gerwig had been a fly on the wall for my adolescence, from the complicated mother-daughter relationship to the class issues (secondhand clothes, trying to figure out how to afford college, etc.) and so much more. I came out of the theater still crying (and wanting to call my mom?). And I think that this also made me enjoy the movie a lot more, because I saw so much of myself in it.
What I most want to highlight is Gerwig’s ability to take so many of the tropes of adolescent girlhood—first crushes, teenage parties, cool “mean” girls, prom, overbearing parents, etc.—and tell them as a full, rich story, with a heroine who is complex and deep and quirky and unique (without being a manic pixie dream girl).
There’s the one scene where Lady Bird says (to a wannabe intellectual moody teenage boy, like someone I definitely dated in high school), “Different things can be sad, it’s not all war!” That rang true to me as a message of this film—a very feminist message. The life and struggles of a teenage girl can be sad, powerful, heart-wrenching—different from so many other films centered on masculinity that get big budgets in Hollywood.
Aisha: So much of what is dealt with in this movie is different from what is usually portrayed in film—and it’s still a popular movie. The first time I tried to see it, it was sold out.
Hannah: Yeah, the movie seems to be having this moment. Though, as somebody who currently lives in Wyoming, I will say that it is not having a moment here. I had to drive down to Colorado to see it.
Abigail: I went to a special advance screening in Portland, and it was packed full of white hipsters—which is typical Portland—but clearly the word had gotten to them, because there were so many people there. Since seeing it, I’ve seen so many rave reviews from publications calling it a “perfect” film. What struck a nerve here? How was this storytelling different?
Aisha: How much had y’all heard about it before?
Hannah: I had heard that it was a new movie, probably in a Facebook ad. And then [UU World] asked us, and then my wife heard the Fresh Air interview. That’s about it. I’d read the UU World interview with Greta Gerwig back when Frances Ha came out, so I knew who she was more than I knew anything about the movie.
Aisha: I wonder if there are people who see their own lives in it, and also people who are romanticizing parts of it? Even though I don’t think the film really romanticizes being working class. There’s something about tapping into the nostalgia, too, for a particular demographic—it could have been set in the ’60s, too, but it’s kind of calling to people our age who aren’t super far away from being teenagers, but who also are clearly adults now.
Abigail: It’s a very millennial movie. At least for me, it felt like a slice of teenage life right out of the early aughts. The music (Dave Matthews Band, Justin Timberlake), the styles, the legacy of 9/11 hovering over everyday lives. It was actually kind of strange for me to realize, “Wow, my adolescence is now a period piece.”
Hannah: Yeah, as somebody who grew up with some of those lived experiences of class, it was weird to see them on screen not being romanticized, but portrayed with some honesty. And yeah, that Dave Matthews really took me back and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
Abigail: When I came out of the movie, I thought a bit about why Gerwig chose that year as a setting for the movie. I mean, it wouldn’t have been that hard for the movie to map onto our contemporary time. So why did she choose 2002–2003 specifically?
I felt like there might be something there with 9/11, the dream of going to New York City, how that changed a national consciousness.
Hannah: As somebody who had a strong desire to leave their hometown, I felt like that was a fairly accurate portrayal of the lust for a city that doesn’t really exist.
Aisha: Another thing that’s different from typical Hollywood portrayals is that she doesn’t move to NYC and have an absolute blast, her life isn’t magically better at all.
Abigail: That moved me—wanting to leave your hometown, and not really realizing how much you love it (or the family you left behind), until you do. That was definitely me in small-town South Carolina, applying to places like NYU with this big-city dream (and not being able to pay for it).
Aisha: One of the most poignant scenes for me was at the end when she walks into the church in NYC. She’s not Catholic, and she’s not even going into the sanctuary to worship. It’s about the familiarity of being in a space that brought her comfort—and so refreshing for religious space to be that and not just a site of trauma.
Abigail: Yes. You could see the love for religious community in the film. I loved that at the end she is brought back to what is important by stumbling into that church in NYC. Being back in that community again reconnects her to her relationships and what holds meaning. That moment really illustrated that religion is about community and relationship.
Hannah: That’s what liturgy is about—giving us the capacity to live our lives, because life is hard.
Abigail: Like, she had been nurtured in this Catholic school where she was able to explore and test boundaries (and eat unconsecrated wafers), and when she was feeling lost in NYC, it was familiar liturgy that brought her back to the feelings of that community. Gerwig was raised UU. I wonder if she chose Catholicism for the movie because it has such rich liturgical power and structure that we UUs don’t always have.
I also thought about generational trauma and cycles, when we hear that Lady Bird’s mom’s mother was an abusive alcoholic. Like, the mom is working so hard to make a life for her kids, and launch them into something better than the history she came from, but at what cost to the relationships?
Aisha: Yeah, I think it raises the question of what it means to give your kids a “better” life. Is it giving them what you didn’t have?
Hannah: That’s such a relevant question for our generation who are (by traditional measures) the ones who will not have a better life than our parents.
Abigail: Yeah. What does it mean to a parent who dreamed of more for their child, if that child ends up embroiled in the same economic and oppressive troubles as we are experiencing now?
Shall we talk about UU stuff? And ritual? Because this will be going in UU World? lol
Hannah: So, I know that Abigail was not raised UU.
Aisha: I also wasn’t!
Hannah: That’s just some helpful context for me. I was, indeed, raised UU.
Abigail: Not being raised UU and then discovering it in college is part of why the ending scene felt really strong to me.
Aisha: Ooh, will you say more about that?
Abigail: When I left my small town behind for the big city, I also left behind religion (the conservative Christianity I was raised with), and in my first year, I had a very similar experience to Lady Bird. I wandered kind of lost into a UU congregation and felt like I’d found home—a place to reconnect to the things that had moved me about church, without the harmful theology I’d experienced.
It was kind of finding my way back to organized religion, which led me to being able to see what was meaningful in what I’d been raised in, too, rather than just being like, “All organized religion is bad!”
Hannah: It’s nice when we UUs manage to be there for people without being so horrifically weird that you never come back.
Abigail: There were some great, friendly greeters at the church that day who didn’t tokenize me as a millennial lol.
Aisha: Ha ha Hannah, that’s the dream, right? I grew up in a few Christian denominations and left because I realized I didn’t believe a lot of the theology, but I was always yearning for the kind of community I found in church—and then I found it in UU communities, where I agreed with the theology.
Abigail: But it’s funny because the things I loved most about my Christian upbringing were the hymns, the communal singing, the sense of community that worshipping together brought—really, the liturgy. And that’s what I found in that UU church. So, just as in Lady Bird, I feel like it was really that idea of liturgy calling us home to ourselves.
Hannah: Honestly, I was mostly reminded of all the times I was hungover in church during college.
Aisha: I mean, that’s real, too!
Hannah: And, right, that I still thought it was important to be at church, that I could not conceive of a world where I wasn’t part of a church. So I would drag my ass on two forms of public transit plus a mile walk (until somebody started giving me a ride) on Sunday mornings.
Aisha: Yeah, that’s powerful stuff! We never see her go to church of any kind, besides at school, in Sacramento, but the second she hears it’s Sunday on the sidewalk in NYC she heads right to a church.
Hannah: Like, my life is in pieces and I need something that helps me put myself back together. That’s why we need more meaningful ritual in UU churches.
Hannah: SERMONS ALONE CANNOT DO IT.
Aisha: In high school my family went to an Episcopal church, and even though the theology doesn’t work for me, times when I find myself in Episcopal settings there is something so, so comforting about knowing the liturgy and rituals and not having to think. Having to think in church can be a really good thing, but also being able to show up broken and hurting and put yourself through the motions is really powerful.
A lot of UU churches light the chalice every week, but that’s something one person does and everyone else watches. We gotta get more participatory stuff in our churches!
Hannah: Yes. Yes yes yes. Because long before we can grasp the finer points of a sermon, we can participate in ritual. I think it’s one of the reasons we struggle with worship that is legit engaging for all ages.
Hannah: My congregation growing up sang Spirit of Life every Sunday. Whatever you think of the song, those words and music are WRITTEN ON MY SOUL. It took a long time to be able to sing it after I moved away from home without just ugly crying.
Abigail: YES. That was a practice in my college home congregation, too, and it means SO MUCH to me.
Hannah: I’m hungry to develop some language and practice around participatory prayer that isn’t Joys and Concerns, and works in more traditional Sunday morning worship.
Abigail: One thing I love so much in our tradition is the potential to make new rituals and create meaning in new ways that are true to who we are today, not just who we once were.
Aisha: I’m ALL about making our own rituals and such, rather than trying to repurpose Christian liturgy—though that can work well, too!
Hannah: Indeed. Any final thoughts?
Abigail: I’m so grateful for UU artists and creatives like Gerwig who are telling truly human stories—stories that get to the core of our connectedness and interdependence, without needing to be explicitly UU. We claim them happily, of course, but the stories and messages that they are putting into the world go further than a UU sermon or service might, and I love that!
Aisha: That’s really beautiful, Abigail! I thought the movie was okay, but clearly it brought up a lot of things. It’s a good reminder for me that something doesn’t have to be perfect to be meaningful and thought-provoking. The movie felt familiar in a lot of little ways.
Hannah: I’m grateful for a movie that felt like honest storytelling about people I knew and loved in my hometown. It wasn’t perfect, but it was so refreshing in its approach. Also, I'm grateful that none of my friends smokes clove cigarettes anymore.
Aisha: Ha ha! It was a joy to talk to y’all!
Hannah: Likewise! We will have to rendezvous at some future UU gathering.
Abigail: Yes to hanging out in person at UU things!
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Aisha Ansano is a ministerial intern at First Church in Boston. She’s excited about exploring the intersections of food, spirituality, and community, and about finding ways to bring embodied practices and rituals into the UU faith.
Abigail Clauhs is a Unitarian Universalist candidate for ministry. She recently graduated from Claremont School of Theology, and now lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as an interfaith chaplain resident at Providence Portland Medical Center.
The Rev. Hannah Roberts Villnave serves as minister of the UU Church of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Prior to that, she lived in Baltimore where she fell in love with crab cakes, Orioles baseball, and her wife, Catherine. They live in Cheyenne with their cat, Schweinsteiger, and enjoy hiking, sampling local beer, and dodging tumbleweeds on the highway.