Lady Bird, which hit theaters earlier this month, has collected sterling reviews proclaiming its writer- director, Greta Gerwig, an important new voice in American movies. Yet Gerwig isn’t really a new voice at all—in the past decade she’s racked up ten screenwriting credits, including collaborations with Chicago indie Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends) and New York indie Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America). When I saw Lady Bird, her first solo flight, it struck me as something completely fresh, though I knew I’d already seen several movies she’d cowritten. Intrigued, I began revisiting some of these older features to see if I could extract the special sensibility of Lady Bird from the stories Gerwig had written with her mentors. Though autobiographical elements pop up in many of her scripts, the collaborations lack the sort of generosity and understanding she brings to her solo debut. One can isolate her voice, but often there seems to be someone else talking over her.
Tall and blond, with enormous hazel eyes and a megawatt grin, Gerwig may have taken root in the popular culture as an indie actress embodying hip Brooklyn, but she was born and raised in Sacramento, California, where her mother, Christine, worked as a nurse, and her father, Gordon, as a loan officer for a credit union. Lady Bird presents a fictionalized version of Gerwig’s last year in high school, before her parents scraped together enough money to send her to private Barnard College in New York City. Christine (Saoirse Ronan of Brooklyn) settles for Bs at her Catholic girls’ school but dreams of escaping to an east-coast college where she can bloom as an artist of some sort. She clashes with her demanding, overworked mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and seeks comfort from her philosophical father, Larry (Tracy Letts). Hungry for identity, she insists on being called “Lady Bird” at home and at school; eager for status, she tries out a couple of boyfriends and drops her brilliant but stocky pal, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), to take up with a shallow but beautiful rich girl, Jenna (Odeya Rush).
These are all familiar concerns in coming-of-age movies; what sets Lady Bird apart is Gerwig’s tenderness toward her characters, particularly the adults. “Your mom’s hard on you,” observes Danny (Lucas Hedges), Christine’s first boyfriend. “Well, she loves me a lot,” Christine replies. Gerwig adores the father, giving him some of the best lines. (“I’m like Keith Richards,” he explains at one point. “I’m just happy to be anywhere.”) At school, Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) scolds the girls for their short skirts, and at the homecoming dance she patrols the couples on the dance floor, separating them with the edict “Six inches for the Holy Spirit!” As a prank, some of the kids decorate the back of her car with a mock-wedding sign reading “Just Married to Jesus,” yet when Christine brings it up later, the nun admits she found it hilarious. Christine and Julie might lie on the carpet of the sacristy with their feet up on the wall, snacking on communion wafers and giggling about masturbation, but Lady Bird is a Christian act of forgiveness.
Gerwig had graduated from Barnard by the time she appeared in Swanberg’s LOL (2006); he made her the center of his next feature, Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), after which they cowrote, codirected, and costarred in the virtual two-hander Nights and Weekends (2008). Identifying Gerwig’s voice in these projects is easy because Swanberg generally relies on his actors to improvise their own dialogue, and she displays a lively imagination whenever she opens her mouth. Unfortunately for Gerwig, being at the center of Hannah Takes the Stairs doesn’t matter much because the center isn’t very large: as the title character, a young writer working on a TV project in Chicago, she’s the object of desire for a succession of men (played by Jay Duplass, Kent Osborne, and Andrew Bujalski) who are so eager to impress her that she can barely get a word in edgewise. Gerwig received a screenwriting credit, but when the movie was released, her writing ability drew less comment than her willingness to get naked onscreen.
Nights and Weekends shows Gerwig to much better advantage. One of Swanberg’s best features, the movie unspools as a series of intimate conversations between young lovers James and Mattie, trying to maintain, and later restart, a long-distance romance between Chicago and New York. Gerwig takes command of nearly every scene, imprinting the story with her offbeat sense of humor. After the lovers, enjoying themselves at an arcade, watch an injection-molding machine form and dispense a little plastic lion, Mattie cracks, “And that’s how babies are made!” As their relationship deteriorates, she offhandedly asks James, “Do you ever wonder what story you’re gonna be in someone else’s life?” Hannah may have established Gerwig’s screen persona as an indie “it” girl, but Nights and Weekends refines that image into one of stubborn independence: in one scene Mattie exults in the fact that she has no lab partner in her science class, and when James asks if he can be her lab partner, she replies, “Absolutely not!”
Gerwig graduated to the mainstream when Baumbach, writer-director of such angst-ridden family dramas as The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Margot at the Wedding (2007), cast her opposite Ben Stiller in the critical hit Greenberg (2010). After Baumbach divorced his wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, and took up with Gerwig, they began collaborating on the screenplay for Frances Ha (2012), whose title character, Frances Halladay (Gerwig), left Sacramento to attend college in New York. Unlike Baumbach’s earlier features, Frances Ha has a distinctly feminine focus: Frances and her roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), share a friendship so intense it borders on platonic romance (or as Frances puts it, “We’re like a lesbian couple that don’t have sex anymore”). Unfortunately for Frances, a dancer going nowhere fast, Sophie leaps at the chance to rent a place in trendy TriBeCa with another woman, and Frances winds up on the living room couch of Benji (Michael Zegen) and Lev (Adam Driver), two wealthy hipsters in Chinatown.
For all the emphasis on female camaraderie, Frances Ha often feels like a giddy valentine from the director to his star. The movie opens with a cutesy montage of Frances and Sophie running around town, reading book passages to each other, and frolicking in the park, all to a jaunty banjo tune on the soundtrack. Another such montage follows when Frances returns to Sacramento to visit her parents (played by Christine and Gordon Gerwig) and celebrate Christmas with her wacky relatives. At the same time, there’s a sour note of family grievance one recognizes from Baumbach’s earlier movies—especially The Squid and the Whale, about his fraught relationship with his literary parents. “I caved and finally took a loan from my stepdad,” Benji confesses at one point. “Bastard!” He and Lev are wised-up, well educated, and never at a loss for words; against their backdrop of amused sarcasm, Frances seems like a pixie, dispensing such innocent sentiments as “I wish we had cookies; I wish we had Chessmen.” It’s enough to make you gag.
Mistress America, which Gerwig and Baumbach cowrote and codirected, involves another violent girl crush, though the film’s tone is meaner and more aggressive. Tracy (Lola Kirke), a lonely freshman at Barnard College, reaches out to 27-year-old Brooke (Gerwig), whose father is about to marry Tracy’s divorced mother, and the two young women explore New York together. “Her beauty was that rare kind that made you want to look more like yourself, and not like her,” observes Tracy, an aspiring fiction writer, in one of the film’s numerous voice-overs. Brooke’s intellect is another matter; dropping the word autodidact, she explains to Tracy, “That word is one of the things I self-taught myself.” The movie works better than Frances Ha because the Gerwig character, so to speak, has been handed off to a different actress; freed from it, the real Gerwig contributes a spirited comic performance as the self-deluded Brooke, who comes up with novel entrepreneurial ideas but lacks the initiative to set them in motion.
Watching Mistress America directly after Lady Bird may sadden you, because the unspoiled 17-year-old who leaves Sacramento for New York at the end of the latter movie becomes a cooler, more calculating person as she learns to negotiate life in the big city. Eager to win admission to an exclusive literary club, Tracy uses Brooke as material for a highly unflattering story, and as their relationship progresses, her judgments of the older woman in the voice-over narration grow more severe. When Brooke gets her hands on a copy of Tracy’s story near the end of the movie, she feels used, exclaiming, “You stole my life!” The two women arrive at an affectionate equilibrium, but only after Tracy has humbled Brooke with her superior intelligence. Fortunately Gerwig finds a warmer part of herself when, unencumbered by any lab partner, she returns to her hometown with Lady Bird. One can only hope that, this time, she stays. v