The Magic That is Greta Gerwig

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Francis Ha

The first time I saw Greta Gerwig was as Frances, in Frances Ha, and her disheveled dithering completely delighted me. She was the most difficult of characters to pull off: someone enchanting and impossible to look away from, but also someone I wouldn’t actually want to be friends with in real life.

That was August of 2013. I hadn’t prioritized the movie (the poster didn’t do it for me, and Noah Baumbach wasn’t a must-see director at the time) so I first watched it a second-run theater. I shouldn’t have waited. It was my top movie of 2013.

From that point, I didn’t seek out Gerwig.

I repeat, I did not look for her in movies. Indeed, I did nothing to catch up on her back catalog until 2015, when Mistress America—her next movie with Noah Baumbach was going to be released. That spring and summer had me seeking movies with her acting roles at a moderate pace. They were movies chosen to fill time. But once I saw Mistress America, movies in which she appeared went to the top of my must-see list.


I still haven’t seen everything. It’s tough for me to watch all the movies of actors who are also women, as I learned with my aborted Jessica Chastain film fest. Women have too many roles where they barely appear on screen, or roles in movies that do feature them but in compromising positions that just feel icky. (Someday I might get over Jolene, but it won’t be any time soon.)

So I’ve missed Gerwig’s mumblecore phase, which is unfortunate, because there’s a special place in my heart for mumblecore.

I purposely limit my exposure to actors and directors outside of the movies they create. I don’t think the press junkets that actors must appear in are helpful to their careers, and they tend to have me forming opinions about the actor as a person rather than an actor as a performer. The less I know about an actor (including their views about politics, lunch, or the weather) the easier it is for me to sink into a film’s story. So I don’t know much about Gerwig, aside from what I’ve seen of her acting and directing.

That said, she brings a verve to most performances that I’m guessing is a core part of her personality. And she’s tenacious. Over the years, she’s done the work to build her career starting with acting in tiny indies (the aforementioned mumblecore) in 2006, building on that with writing beginning in 2007, and directing beginning in 2008.

Greta Gerwig is a white person who is blond and of normal weight for female actors, though I think she has an above-average height. These are all advantages in the movie-making world, though of course her gender is not. But her body doesn’t seem to exist to be an icon. Nothing about her appearance could be said to be sculpted; rather it’s a vessel for projecting character.

In fact, the adjective I would use to describe a lot of Gerwig’s movements is flailing. Not a flail that is out of control, but a person that is so busy moving through life that her limbs tend to go hither and yon. She’s both graceful and awkward, and her characters often seem amused by, or curious about, whatever it is they are encountering.

20th Century Women

Most of all, she is funny. There’s both a puckish impulse and intelligent humor on display in her performances, and in the movies she writes and directs.

Jake Coyle, writing for the Chicago Tribune says it well:

But in films of any size, working either in front of or behind the camera, Gerwig’s aesthetic—awkward, funny, without artifice—is remarkably consistent. It’s kind of like the reverse of The Purple Rose of Cairo; instead of a movie character stepping off-screen, she’s like a real person stepping onto it—and one happy to join any genre.

Source: “After ‘Mistress America,’ Greta Gerwig will dive into directing.” 14 August 2015

It’s because of that consistent aesthetic that I’m interested to see if her announced directing feature, Barbie (co-written with Noah Baumbach and potentially starring Margo Robbie) comes to be. If anyone can bring life and humor to, “a live-action feature film based on the popular line of Barbie toys” (as it says on IMDB) it’s Gerwig.

Let’s take a look at the Gerwig films I’ve seen and see if there are a few for you to watch.


Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillmen likes a mannered comedy/drama, but I’ve often found his films fall flat for me. (Exception: Love and Friendship.) But if you’ve liked his other films (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) you might enjoy this film of women trying to “change the male-dominated environment of the Seven Oaks College campus, and to rescue their fellow students from depression, grunge, and low standards of every kind.” (IMDB)

I watched a funny clip on YouTube that has since been removed. It seemed promising. Yet I didn’t love this film. Maybe I need to watch it again?

The clothing aesthetic is great!

Should you watch this? Maybe.

  • It’s got a lot of Gerwig.
  • How important is the pace of a movie?
  • Gentle farce? What’s your feeling?

Read the review

Lola Verses

Another headlining effort that I remember little about (and my review wasn’t specific enough to jog my memory.) It’s written by Zoe Lister-Jones though, who wrote and directed Band Aid, which is a movie I love. And you’ll clock a lot of Gerwig time.

Movies with an inciting incident of wedding plans not coming to fruition are touch-and-go for me. I’m not invested in a Happily Ever After, and more than a few decent movies have been ruined with a late-third-act change of heart. (I’m looking at you He’s Just Not Into You). My review gives me hope that this goes in a different direction.

Should you watch this? Maybe.

  • Again, a lot of Gerwig.
  • The fact that I don’t remember much about it has me lukewarm on a recommendation.
  • Maybe you can watch it and report back.

Read the review


Here’s where Gerwig and Noah Baumbach meet, at least movie-wise. My memories of this film are vague, and the impressions in my brain are that Gerwig hung about, nodded, and stood with her hands in her pockets. Was she perhaps wearing overalls? I’m not willing to go back and check.

This movie is important, because it is what would lead to Frances Ha, which would lead to all the other good stuff.

Should you watch this? I’d say no.

  • You have to have Ben Stiller tolerance/appreciation.
  • I just watched a clip. Eh.

Read the review

20th Century Women

O! This is a movie that when it appears as I scroll through things (as it has recently because it’s streaming on Netflix) my body involuntarily responds with a happy, “Aw!” I love it so much. It’s even has things that sometimes don’t go over well, like not really having a plot. But the characters are so strong it doesn’t really matter.

Gerwig plays a woman in transition. She’s dealing with cervical cancer, she’s trying to be a photographer (arty) while being a photographer (newspaper). Her pink hair reflects her punk aesthetic.

Most of the movie is about the generation gap between Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and his mother (Annette Bening) who is forty years older than he is. But the various people who live in the broken-down mansion that is home also have their own generation gaps. There’s a great scene with Gerwig talking about a topic that everyone else at the table would not like to discuss. It’s fun to watch Lucas Jade Zumann’s eyes as she talks.

Should you watch this: Yep

  • Great performances by everyone.
  • Character driven, yet not boring.
  • So much curiosity on screen.
  • Lucas Jade Zumann is that guy who plays Gilbert in Anne with an E.

Read the review

Frances Ha

I talk about this movie all the time. Frances is lovable despite being annoying. It was my favorite movie of 2013. I recommended it to friends who were visiting New York City and wanted some NYC-set movies; they loved it. (A better NYC movie would have been Premium Rush because it’s a map movie, but I didn’t think of it fast enough.)

Here, watch the preview here.

Should you watch this: Yep

  • It’s the one everyone loves.
  • You can feel smart because its in black and white.
  • How often do you get to see a movie about the fluctuations of female friendships?
  • You will ponder if you also have trouble leaving places.

Read the review

Mistress America

Hey, when’s the last time you’ve seen a screwball comedy? When’s the last time you’ve seen a screwball comedy that was filmed in the 21st Century? Tracy’s (Lola Kirke) mom is marrying Brooke’s (Greta Gerwig) dad and so the girls meet. Brooke is a whirlwind (it seems that every description ever of this movie uses that adjective to describe her) and she’s mesmerizing to Tracy.

And in general.

Should you watch this: Yep

  • If only for Brooke walking down that staircase.
  • The humor flies fast and furious.
  • How often do you get to see a screwball comedy?

Read the review

Maggie’s Plan

This movie came and went without a lot of fanfare, but I thought it was a complicated story, funny, and had great performances by Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore, who has a Danish accent. Also Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph have enjoyable bit parts.

(Bill Hader also had a bit part with Kristen Wiig in Adventureland. Could I do a list of movies where Hader and another SNL cast member have bit parts? I just thought of a third one. Perhaps I could.)

3SMReviews: Maggie's Plan

Maggie’s original plan is to have a baby on her own, but when she meets John (Ethan Hawke,) things get complicated.

Should you watch this: Yep!

  • I mean, you have to be okay with adultery.
  • Not for yourself, but in the movies.
  • You really don’t want to miss Julianne Moore’s accent.
  • Plus, how else are you going to make your own list of Bill Hader/SNL bit parts?

Read the review


Lady Bird

Gerwig first solo directing effort was Lady Bird and man, was that a good start. Here’s a quote:

Gerwig wrote Lady Bird partly as a response to films about boys growing up. At the New York Film Festival, she asked the crowd: ‘What is Boyhood, but for a girl? What is The 400 Blows, but for a girl? What is personhood for young women?’

In most films, girls exist to be looked at. Sometimes they help a male protagonist come to a realization about himself. Sometimes they die. Gerwig makes Lady Bird the one who looks: at boys but also houses, magazines, books, clothes and at the city of Sacramento.

“Greta Gerwig’s Radical Confidence” Christine Smallwood, New York Times, 1 November, 2017

Lady Bird is the name that Lady Bird gave herself. She’s a senior at an all-girls’ Catholic high school, she moves through her life as if she were the center of a movie, and she has big dreams of East Coast colleges and getting far away from her hometown.

That all this buoyant confidence feels so effervescently radical is a testament to the humor and intelligence of Gerwig’s script. That it is so rare is an indictment of our woman-hating culture, which makes a depiction of a smart teenage girl who likes herself and chases her desires seem like news.

“Greta Gerwig’s Radical Confidence” Christine Smallwood, New York Times, 1 November, 2017

There are seven reasons to watch Lady Bird and those all have to do with relationships.

  • With her mother. (Laurie Metcalf)
  • With her best friend. (Beanie Feldstein)
  • With the cool girl. (Odeya Rush)
  • With her father. (Tracy Letts)
  • With her first boyfriend. (Lucas Hedges)
  • With the guy in the band. (Timothée Chalamet)
  • With the head of school Sister Sarah Joan. (Lois Smith)

The movie is built on those relationships, how they change, and how they change Lady Bird during her last year of high school. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Performance by an Actress in both the Leading and Supporting categories, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. It was my 2017 movie of the year. It is not to be missed.

Should you watch this: Indeed!

  • How have you lasted this long without seeing it?

Read the review

Little Women

While nine years passed between the first movie Gerwig directed (Nights and Weekends) and Lady Bird, we only had to wait two years for her next feature. And thank goodness for that. Many directors who are also women have very long gaps between movies.

There’s a good chance you know the story of Little Women, but if not, it’s based on a beloved (but incredibly boring) book written by Louisa May Alcott in the nineteenth century. The book has a lot of frustrating plot turns, yet it remains oft-cited as a favorite by a good chunk of women.

As you may have guessed, I am not a fan. The novel has been adapted for film a number of times, most memorably for me in 1994 with an all-star cast of actors from that era.

And then, Greta Gerwig decided to take on this story.

She’s a fan, which is good, because my adaptation of Little Women would have the fans up in arms. What Gerwig did in her adaptation was to shift the focus of the movie from a chronological depiction of Alcott’s novel, to the story of the novel Little Women being published. Brilliant!

Because the book is based on Alcott’s life, we still get all the markers of the story, but we can see how the plot twists in the book come about. This is satisfying both to people who like movie adaptations to be like the books they spring from, and it also satisfied people like me who feel very strongly that a plot twist involving Jo is ridiculous.

Like the ‘94 adaptation, this one is packed with a star-studded cast, including Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Laura Linney as Marmee, Susan Serandon as Aunt March, and Timothée Chalamet as Laurie.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Performance by an Actress in both the Leading and Supporting categories, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Achievement in Music, and it won an Oscar for Best Costume Design.

I think it should have won for most of those categories, but I’m happy with the award it did win because the costumes were great, especially those wrap-front sweaters the girls were always wearing.

Should you watch this? By all means, yes!

  • If you hate the book, it’s interesting to see how the film was assembled.
  • If you love the book, you still get to see your favorite moments.
  • If you are not familiar with the book or the movie(s), now’s the time to get up to speed.

Read the review

As a director with three movies under her belt, two of Gerwig’s films have 10 Academy Award nominations and one win. Here’s hoping that the Barbie movie comes to pass and that we get to see more from her in the future, either acting or directing.

If you are just getting to know her, there is a lot to catch up with. What will you start with?

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