This essay is part of our 2017 Rewind, a look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of 2017.
Greta Gerwig has been portraying a young generation of quirky and somewhat lost characters since 2006. At the forefront of the mumblecore movement, she has been a well-known name in indie film. Her collaborations with Noah Baumbach proved her talent was beyond just acting, but in writing as well, with Frances Ha and Mistress America. This year, she stepped behind the camera for her directorial debut and delivered a candidly beautiful look at a teenage girl’s life in Lady Bird.
— TIFF (@TIFF_NET) September 10, 2017
The filmmaker behind the best-reviewed film ever on Rotten Tomatoes (damn you Cole Smithey) certainly deserves some recognition this year. Lady Bird is a fun and heart-wrenching film thanks to wonderful performances by Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, and more. However, the real heart of the film is evident in Gerwig’s honest storytelling.
Obviously inspired by her own childhood in Sacramento, Lady Bird is not entirely autobiographical. Gerwig told Vulture in October, “When you write something you know, you’re making a story that will work, whether or not there’s bits taken. It’s always funny to me when people say, ‘Well, it’s clearly autobiographical,’ and I say, ‘Well, how do you know my autobiography?’ ” She continued, “Certainly, there are things that are connected, but I just think it’s a very interesting assumption. In some ways, it feels akin to the assumption that I’ve experienced as an actor when people say … ‘This is you.’ Which I’ve always taken as a compliment because it felt like you were watching a person.”
The assumption that everything in Lady Bird comes from Gerwig’s own life is in the intimacy she creates with the characters, and the audience’s own experiences as teenagers. It’s even more impressive to look at what Gerwig has created: a story carefully constructed from fictional and real events that coincide so easily that they create a story we assume is real. This is partly because Gerwig looks at the coming-of-age story from all angles. She doesn’t shy away from the disappointment we experience while growing up. There is attention to the small moments that create great change in a person, like driving around your hometown for the first time. The character she creates makes mistakes in trying to figure out who she wants to be, just like we did. No relationship in the film is easy to understand or two-dimensional. There are nuances and layers to all the interactions Lady Bird has throughout the film, unlike any filmmaker has done before. Knowing what to draw upon in one’s own life and how to show every side of a story is something some filmmakers can’t even do after a long career, but Gerwig did it on her first try.
Her attention to detail with Lady Bird extends to every aspect of the film. Even the specific music used was important to Gerwig in building the world as authentically as possible. She wrote personal letters to Justin Timberlake and Dave Matthews to request the rights to their music. Each letter explained the moment in the film Gerwig planned on using the track, connecting the story so well to the soundtrack of songs that mean so much to her. These letters went viral, not just because they’re funny, but because they represent Gerwig so well: the quirky young woman full of enthusiasm for whatever she is creating.
In 2017, Greta Gerwig broke records, made a critical darling, and reached a larger audience than she ever did in her acting career. Her unique voice showed the depth that can be in coming-of-age stories, especially those about young girls. She brought real life into storytelling with the same grandiosity as other blockbusters. The earnestness in Lady Bird is what most of us crave in movies, but hardly ever get in such a profound form. Many will probably try to emulate her style in the coming years, but none will do it with such flair and honesty as Greta Gerwig herself.