Greta Gerwig on the lessons of faith and love in her Golden Globe winning film

“I just returned home from my first semester of college, and I am [emotionally] destroyed right now,” said a young woman, her cheeks still damp with tears. She was in the audience during a Q&A with Greta Gerwig at the Neuhouse Hollywood immediately following a screening of Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, “Lady Bird.”

The man sitting next to the college freshman said lightly but with utter sincerity, “I’m her father, and I’m destroyed right now, too.”

Such is the effect that the story of headstrong yet charming high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (portrayed by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan in an Oscar-caliber turn) has on any audience member.

The fact that “Lady Bird” could, in equal measure, be so moving to both a teenage girl and her father perfectly encapsulates the remarkable proficiency with which the 34-year-old Gerwig, displaying wisdom both beyond her years and beyond her experience level in the director’s chair, her film with rich, rounded characters that never drift into caricatures.

“I wanted it to feel like you could follow any one of these characters and there’s a whole movie there; that they had a rich inner life, and were in the middle of their own story,” explained Gerwig.

Given the film’s setting in 2002 at a Sacramento Catholic high school, one could easily arrive at the conclusion that “Lady Bird” is an autobiographical work for Gerwig, herself a Sacramento native who attended a Catholic high school. But Gerwig claims that, on the contrary, the character of Lady Bird is actually her exercise in living out somewhat of a fantasy, as she crafted her to be the defiant, dyed-hair spitfire that Gerwig herself never was.

“When I was growing up, I was the opposite of Lady Bird,” recalled Gerwig. “I never had anyone call me by a different name or dye my hair red; I wasn’t a rebel like she is. I was more of a rule-following kid.

Though Lady Bird’s story is a fictional one, it was essential to Gerwig that Lady Bird’s stomping grounds be Sacramento. According to Gerwig, the familiar hometown setting enabled her to fully explore the film’s central theme of the grass on the other side always looking greener, or in Lady Bird’s case, the city lights of New York looking brighter, and coming to understand the blessings of childhood right as it’s time to move on from it.

“The initial impulse to make the film was a desire to write a love letter to a place that only came into focus after I left,” offered Gerwig, “It is difficult to register the depths of your love when you are 16 and quite sure that ‘life’ is happening somewhere else,” she said. “None of the events in the film literally happened, but there is a core of truth that is connected to a feeling of home, childhood and departure.”

“Senior year spirals upwards: it burns brightly and is also disappearing as quickly as it emerges,” Gerwig continued. “There is a certain vividness in worlds that are coming to an end. There is a pre-sentiment of loss, of ‘lasts.’ Both kids and parents experience it. It is something beautiful that you never appreciated and ends as soon as you come to understand it.”

With a brisk pace that mirrors the fleeting pace of senior year, we absorb Lady Bird’s intricate relationships with her teachers at school (which include very warm, three-dimensional portrayals of Catholic school nuns and priests), her undyingly loyal best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and her misguided romances with closeted homosexual Danny (Lucas Hedges) and too-cool-for-school Kyle (Timothee Chalamat).

But the relationship at the core of the narrative is Lady Bird’s contentious yet, buried deep beneath all the fighting, truly loving and caring relationship with her mother Marion. According to Gerwig, the mother-daughter dynamic of the film is, in fact, the true love story here.

“I knew I wanted the story to be, at its heart, a mother-daughter ‘love story,’ mainly because I really think it is such a rich, complex, beautiful, loving relationship in which each one is painfully failing to reach the think relationships like that are worth whole movies. Most times in film, mothers are shown as either monsters or angels, rarely as a person who’s flawed and doing their best. And I think that’s more mothers that I know.”

In addition to exploring Lady Bird’s familial and interpersonal relationships, the film also, in a variety of subtle ways, delves into Lady Bird’s relationship with God. Though Gerwig was not raised Catholic and is not a practicing Catholic today, she does possess a fascination with Catholicism, one that stems back to her “incredibly fond” memories of attending a Catholic high school and that heavily influenced Lady Bird’s continuous encounters with grace.

“In high school, we took four years of theology, and ‘grace’ was explained to me as being ‘completely unexpected, holy, and deserved, but is something that can never be earned,’ ” recalled Gerwig.

“It’s given to you; it has nothing to do with your worthiness, and there’s something deeply beautiful about that to me. I’m always interested in epiphanies that come late; how you’re given gifts in life but don’t recognize them as gifts until later. One of the themes of the movie is that Lady Bird’s fighting so hard to get out of this place, but there’s so many things that people give her along the way that she doesn’t recognize until the end. And those were the moments of grace.”

Perhaps the most cutting instance of Lady Bird rejecting the gifts in her life occurs when she’s attending a college party in New York and tells a guy that she’s from San Francisco, a moment that Gerwig hopes audiences will connect to Peter’s denial of Jesus, not only as a commentary on shame, but also from a redemptive standpoint.

“I have always been moved by the story of the denial of Peter,” explained Gerwig. “At the Last Supper, Peter fervently tells Jesus that he will die before he disowns him, but Jesus replies that Peter will deny him three times before the rooster crows, which, of course, ended up happening exactly as Jesus predicted,” she said.

“However, after the Resurrection, Jesus appears to Peter and asks Peter three times if he loves him. Peter replies that he does each time. He is given the opportunity to repent through love. These stories have always informed my writing and my ideas, finding a larger universal truth behind what are so-called ‘small’ lives. Lady Bird denies where she is from, yes, but in the end, she also declares her love. We are granted the opportunity for grace, and we need love to accept it.”

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