Where to begin with Greta Gerwig

The road to Barbie: we plot a beginner’s path through the rise and rise of Greta Gerwig, from indie icon to Oscar-nominated auteur.

10 July 2023

By Georgina Guthrie

Greta Gerwig in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2011)

Why this might not seem so easy

By the time Greta Gerwig came to direct her multi Oscar-nominated coming-of-age drama Lady Bird (2017), The New York Times had already claimed she “may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation” – but moving behind the camera was never a case of her reaching the top and deciding to conquer something new. Gerwig always wanted to be the one driving the show; an aspiration that initially fell flat when every single one of her applications for playwriting courses was rejected in the early 2000s.

During this time, Joe Swanberg – whose no-budget film LOL (2006) she had appeared in as a favour – got in touch and asked if she wanted to relocate to Chicago and work on a movie. The result was 2007 gem Hannah Takes the Stairs, which she co-wrote and starred in alongside Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Creep). She’s the clear star, and her now-recognisable calling cards – faltering speech, uncomfortable laughter, rambling monologues, and making then breaking eye contact – are all established at this early point.

Gerwig’s stumble into acting proved fruitful. The Duplass brothers’ entertaining horror-comedy Baghead (2008) followed, then more low-budget cinéma vérité-style films that gained her a reputation as ‘the It Girl of mumblecore’ (mumblecore being a pejorative term critics used to describe the low-budget filming style that emerged during the 2000s). 

She married writer-director Noah Baumbach after meeting on the set of Greenberg (2010), and went on to write and star in Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015) – two collaborative Baumbach-Gerwig vehicles that earned both critical acclaim and Gerwig a much bigger profile.

Barbie (2023)

Gerwig’s genre-spanning directorial, screenwriting and acting offerings may seem incongruous at first glance, not least as the fuschia-drenched Barbie arrives in theatres, hot on the (little pink plastic) heels of lo-fi indies, political biopics, satanic slashers and lush period dramas. But taking her entire back catalogue into account, it becomes apparent this is exactly the kind of film she’d direct. From Hannah Takes the Stairs to Mistress America and beyond, Gerwig’s career has been about taking difficult women – flighty girlfriends, moody teenagers and directionless thirtysomethings – seriously. 

Barbie is a similarly polarising character. “I don’t know if there’s a doll that anyone is as mad at,” says Gerwig in a recent New Yorker interview. If there’s a thread that runs throughout her work, it’s surely this: female characters who someone is ‘mad at’ – whether that’s a mum battling her daughter in Lady Bird, a girl who refuses to marry in Little Women (2019), or a girlfriend who cries too much in Nights and Weekends (2008). In this context, Barbie – which is about a kind of femininity that’s easy to dismiss as superficial and trashy – makes complete sense, and a delve into Gerwig’s earlier work will undoubtedly make a viewing all the more rewarding.

The best place to start – Lady Bird

Although she doesn’t appear in it herself, Gerwig’s first solo outing as director, the 2017 tour-de-force Lady Bird, is the lynchpin between her early mumblecore films and later offerings, containing many of the key themes that span her oeuvre.

Lady Bird (2017)

The story follows a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) at that emotionally charged juncture in life: the summer when school ends and university begins. What sets this apart from other high-school-set stories is its complex mother-daughter relationship, and the divide between the two. Instead of an impassable gap, viewers see the mother’s perspective almost as much as the daughter’s, with both parties shown as equally flawed, but ultimately able to connect – just about.

Lady Bird wailing “I’m sorry I wanted more” offers a rare glimpse of an emotional teen butting heads with a parent who is both sympathetic and wrong. 

What to watch next 

Next viewings should include Frances Ha and Mistress America, two top-drawer Baumbach-Gerwig collaborations. Both feature late-twenty- early-thirtysomething women with big ambitions, middling talent and little focus; both are love letters to NYC, a place that dually offers excitement, and, as Gerwig puts it, the ability to “knock the shit out of them”.

Mistress America (2015)

Frances is the perfect vehicle for Gerwig’s dreamy, comedically physical style, as is the film’s pared-back naturalism, which, in true mumblecore style, allows the camera to linger on her expressive face in extreme closeups that reveal inner turmoil. Mistress America offers a thematic extension of Frances Ha and Lady Bird: here, Gerwig’s character Brooke shares the story with a liberal arts student (Lola Kirke) in her freshman year at uni. Gerwig’s brand of physical comedy (accentuated here by tailored high-waisted trousers and a nipped in blouse) provides some of the best laughs, but it’s also a gently heartbreaking portrait of a woman who’s losing, but only by a hair’s breadth. 

Maggie’s Plan (2015), directed by Rebecca Miller, again showcases Gerwig’s gentle, complex delivery – so it makes sense to watch this next, followed by earlier breakthrough Damsels in Distress (2011), an urbane Whit Stillman college-set comedy in which her optimistic, chirpier style shines through.

Little Women (2019)

Her second feature as solo director, her 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, sees Gerwig branching out into new territory and playing with a larger budget. Disempowerment forms the thematic backbone of this lavish period drama, along with Gerwig staples female friendship, family tensions and romantic disappointment (it features not one but two declined marriage proposals).

Finally, many of Gerwig’s early mumblecore films offer startlingly mature explorations of romantic discord. Her directorial debut Nights and Weekends (which she wrote, stars in, and co-directed with Joe Swanberg) is an intimate drama about a long-distance couple who, over the course of a year, separate, partially get back together, then part. It’s a small film that weaves a potent spell with its format of periodic visits bookended by two sex scenes – one a lust-fuelled tussle on the kitchen floor; the other an equally raw, aborted encounter where indifference looms. It perfectly captures the uniquely long-distance-relationship cocktail of explosive desire, followed by roiling anxieties fuelled by the pressure of limited time. Post coitus, Gerwig’s Mattie sobs in disappointment like an overtired toddler after a birthday party.

Give Yeast (2008) a watch for Gerwig’s wildest performance, playing an emotionally stunted woman-child who’s one third of a trio of toxically codependent friends, each as awful as the other. Careening from chaotic playfulness to violence (culminating in her giving her friend a wallop in the woods), Gerwig channels 80s/90s Scorsese-era Joe Pesci – you’ll breathe a sigh of relief once she’s left the picture without killing anyone. 

Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)

Early breakthrough Hannah Takes the Stairs is a low-key mumblecore classic. With naturalistic verve, she plays a chronically dissatisfied twentysomething who leaves her boyfriend (Mark Duplass), then has affairs with two work colleagues. Round things off with The Dish & the Spoon (2011), an underrated indie gem by Allison Bagnall that sees two lost souls (Gerwig and Olly Alexander) find comfort in each other under lifeless grey skies. This is Gerwig at her most melancholy and angry – two lesser-seen moods, but she carries the atypical role off with panache. 

Where not to start 

Some of Gerwig’s bigger-budget mid-career Hollywood productions capitalised on her rising stardom but feel less representative of her talents. Arthur (2011), starring Russell Brand and Helen Mirren, sees her play a role that skirts uncomfortably close to manic pixie dream girl territory as the love interest to Brand’s spoiled, alcoholic playboy. While she brings much-needed warmth to an otherwise joyless film, Gerwig’s dreamy optimism feels cloying here; it’s as if her brief was ‘play Zooey Deschanel, but in the style of Greta Gerwig’ – the result is a bastardised, Pez-nibbling, cartoon-watching mutant of both. 

Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog (2016) – in which Gerwig plays a dorky veterinary nurse – makes an interesting addition, but offers little new in terms of range, and those not familiar with the director’s wilfully jarring humour may struggle. After your Lady Bird starter, Frances Ha main course and mumblecore dessert, Wiener Dog is best thought of as that weird shot at the end of the night.

Barbie is in cinemas from 21 July.

A season of Greta Gerwig films plays at BFI Southbank throughout July, with a selection also available on BFI Player.

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