Raised on a diet of Penny Lane, Ramona Flowers and Summer Finn, boys do not stand a chance when it comes to perceiving the unseen depths and desires of the women in their lives. If every girl who hangs with rock stars, or likes the same dumb band as you, exists purely to stoke and validate your own whims and aspirations, how will you ever get your head around the concept that these people do, in fact, exist independently of the shitty rom-com playing in your head, with their own wants, needs, ambitions and flaws? Perfection and idealisation is suffocating, and it makes for unimaginative cinema.
Greta Celeste Gerwig, mumblecore queen and Sacramento native, is spearheading a very active movement against this male-centric style of storytelling. In her still-young back catalogue of roles, she has taken the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – most abhorred of filmic archetypes – head-on, picking it to pieces and surgically removing its most toxic tendencies to forge a new kind of romantic heroine. She’s not alone in this – performers and writers like Issa Rae, Lena Dunham and Emily Browning actively pursue or create roles that subvert, destroy or add substance to the flimsy caricatures so often rolled out to play against downbeat male leads with unhealthy fixations.
But it’s Gerwig who epitomises this move away from the sadboy narrative, with her work both in front of and behind the camera. With her directorial debut Lady Bird out in the UK shortly and causing a little bit of a stir (maybe one or five Oscar nominations, whatever), it’s worth looking back at what brought her to this early pinnacle in her career.
From the very start, you can see “co-writer” tagged onto her IMDb credits next to starring roles – first with Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, one of the foremost examples of the short-lived mumblecore scene that also birthed fellow master subverters in the Duplass brothers. Gerwig’s influence on the arc of the titular Hannah, who she also plays, is felt throughout as she drifts between romances and job prospects with the despondency, trepidation and uncertainty of any 20-something, gender irregardless. Hannah’s innate weirdness is keenly felt, but never overpowers the emotional complexity at her core as Gerwig and her co-writers refuse to let her become the developmental catalyst for any singular beau.
Most notable about Gerwig’s work in other people’s films is this recurring influence she wields over other people’s creative processes. This is no more obvious than in her work with Noah Baumbach, who, to be fair, put together some great little films on his own before their collaboration manifested – The Squid and the Whale stands out – though his work on female characters was somewhat lacking.
As soon as their partnership kicked off in Greenberg, it was immediately obvious that Gerwig was bringing her own energy and ideas to the characters this auteur presented her with. In the 2010 comedy-drama, her Florence is as much a driving force of the plot as Ben Stiller’s eponymous sad sack Roger Greenberg. Rather than leading him down a narrative path to validation and renewal, Florence and Roger challenge each others’ inherent natures, generating a friction which sends both characters in unexpected directions – their arcs inextricably linked, but markedly individual.
With each subsequent film the two made together, Gerwig would explicitly take on that co-writer credit. Together, they would achieve near-perfection with Frances Ha – an absolute gem, and a boundary-buster of a film. Gerwig’s Frances is riddled with quirks and neuroses almost to the point of paralysis, flitting between jobs and homes at an alarming rate. She meets a number of people, men and women, who try to pigeonhole her into specific roles in their lives and each time she busts out of their restrictive frameworks with aplomb. Across the whole movie, Frances’ only defining relationship is with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), giving the film an achingly romantic, thoroughly female through-line of solidarity and charm.
Sisterhood has become increasingly fundamental to the Gerwig cinematic worldview, too, not only in Frances Ha but also in films like Mistress America, where her Brooke sagely guides her naive sister-in-law (Lola Kirke) through the pitfalls and perils of life in New York, or in the group mentality of Damsels in Distress where she leads a stellar cast of female performers – Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Alia Shawkat, and Aubrey Plaza, to name a few. Last year’s 20th Century Women is also exemplary of the unknowable depths she breathes into supporting roles that could otherwise have been left by the wayside, in her evocative turn as cervical cancer survivor and ’80s punk Abbie.
With the upcoming Lady Bird, she pushes these challenges to the masculine status quo one further by encroaching into territory long reserved for almost exclusively the male artiste: a quasi-autobiographical coming-of-age piece about growing up listless and restless in small town America. How many men have written and directed these sorts of inward-looking, personal pieces about their own lives to the adulation and validation of their peers? Any number of films by Richard Linklater, Baumbach or Wes Anderson spring to mind.
It can only be hoped that Lady Bird lives up to the praise raining down upon it – it was already a massive hit last year in the US and its sweep of Oscar nominations has seen Gerwig become only the fifth woman ever to be up for a directing gong. It serves as due, cumulative praise for a career well-spent so far on forging her own path, and elevating or empowering other women to do the same.
Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan has already waxed lyrical about how Gerwig influenced her to consider directing her own films. The film is certainly making noise right now and hopefully Gerwig, with her dorky dancing and razor-sharp sense of character, is cultivating fertile ground that many female creators, or basically any hopefuls outside the straight-white-cis-male default, can reap for generations of great movies and great characters to come.