Lady Bird is like an organic, non-G.M.O. version of Mean Girls. That may sound like a dig, but what I mean is that Greta Gerwig improves upon, and makes her own, a well-established but entirely respectable coming-of-age formula. Her movie is almost perfect for what it is, which happens to be a teenage girl’s journey to adult consciousness—but is really the shared story of every young person from “the provinces” with creative ambitions whose bubble gets pierced by that pin called life. Happily, this bubble is resilient, and the pin mercifully dull: all that leaks out is childish arrogance. I think the delight one takes in this movie is in watching Saoirse Ronan learn the lessons that you, as a creative person, and a lucky one at that, already know. There are keen, relatable observations, but few revelations.
Foremost among Gerwig’s life lessons is: call your mother. If Lady Bird’s incipient appreciation of home—podunk Sacramento—has a foundation, it’s the relationship between her and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). One caught glimpses of an analogous parenting style in Room, where Joan Allen held Brie Larson’s family together with a minimum of fuss. That was in the thick of crisis, though. In the McPhersons’ world—the minefield of minor emergencies endemic to the working poor—Marion’s fuss is the bill everyone else pays for their (relative) stability. Lady Bird, afflicted with the brain chemistry of a 17-year-old, takes Mama Bird’s pecking for granted, unaware that in its absence she’d be sleeping on a dirt floor.
Metcalf has what might be called Resting Mom Face; her lower lip puffs out a bit because that’s where her next nag is queued up. But she pairs her deadpan to an extraordinary gift for timed releases of guilt or stress that were honed, perhaps, in front of live studio audiences on Roseanne. The biggest case in point is the way her pupils slide up when she knows she’s being evasive—I’m thinking of Marion’s response when the daughter asks if her mother likes her: Marion pouts for a second, and hedges.