Growing Up Gerwig: A Guide to an Unofficial Trilogy

Allow us to introduce you to the Greta Gerwig Cinematic Universe.
By  · Published on December 19th, 2017

Allow us to introduce you to the Greta Gerwig Cinematic Universe.

In Frances Ha, the titular heroine apologizes to a friend when her card is declined at restaurant. “I’m so embarrassed,” she admits, “I’m not a real person yet.”

That self-deprecating yet earnest confession would easily fit in any of the last three films Greta Gerwig has written, those being Frances Ha (2012), Mistress America (2015), and Lady Bird (2017). Although this year marked her debut as a director, the 34-year-old multi-hyphenate has already cemented herself as one of independent film’s most unique and developed storytellers with an unofficial trilogy: a trio of films that saw Gerwig balance writing, acting and directing (always doing at least two) while consistently exploring the lives of young women in search of personhood and meaning.

Tellingly, Gerwig sought to be a playwright before finding her initial success through acting. Yet even while performing words that were not her own — words written by established and influential directors like Noah Baumbach, Todd Solondz, Mike Mills at that — her singular artistic intent was apparent from the start, practically bursting through the screen. Of her performance in Greenberg, for example, A.O. Scott wrote: “She seems to be embarked on a project… she is an ambassador of a cinematic style that often seems opposed to the very idea of style.” It is that effortless, almost invisible quality to her performances that suggests her “trilogy” may be completely unintentional (“I like things that look like accidents,” Frances swoons about her art). But it is that same unmistakable M.O. — a voice so new and singular it is heard both in front of the camera and behind it — that hints at the generation-defining filmmaker that is Greta Gerwig.

To use one of her most well-known influences, Lady Bird was not just her 400 Blows, it was the finale to her own Adventures of Antoine Doinel. In place of the same protagonist or actor, however, it’s her perspective of the world that evolves.

“It’s a name given to me, by me.”

Lady Bird. Mistress America. Frances Ha. The trilogy follows the path from high school to college to post-grad life, a continuity that Gerwig wrote and created in reverse chronological order, while also coinciding with her gradual transition off screen (there’s only a handful of frames without her in FH, she’s only in half of MA, and she doesn’t appear in LB). Furthermore, each film is named after a moniker given to the protagonist. The titular Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) was born Christine, but, much to the bewilderment of her parents and peers, has given herself a new name that embodies her urgent desire to leave the nest. Mistress America is the name of the autobiographical superheroine that aspiring entrepreneur Brooke pitches to her sister-in-law, Tracy (Lola Kirke), who then uses the title for her short story about Brooke. And finally, and perhaps most subtly, Frances Ha ends with Frances Halladay (whose last name is never mentioned or seen until now) trying and failing to fit her name label into a mailbox. Without a second thought, she folds it by a third and it fits, her last name cut off at “Ha”. It’s not the full person she’s spent the movie trying to become, but it’s two-thirds of the way there, and there’s a poetry to it.

“Tell me the story of us.”

As much as these films are insular character studies, however, their emotional cores are built on the external relationships these young women have with others, especially other women. LB is, simply put, the story of a daughter and her mother. MA follows the misadventures of two sister-in-laws. FH is largely about the ups and downs in a relationship between two best friends. All three of these relationships go through tender highs and crushing, oftentimes hurtful lows. In the end, Gerwig always brings the women back together in one way or another (the phone call in LB, Thanksgiving brunch in MA, “that moment” in FH) that deepens or changes their connection for the better. And though Gerwig develops every character as uniquely flawed people that challenge her heroines, in many cases they are an extension or reflection of themselves. “I’m Naomi with different hair,” Frances repeatedly jokes of her friend. Lady Bird’s father speaks for the audience when he notes that her and her mother “both have such strong personalities.” And MA, while also continuing co-writer/director Noah Baumbach’s trend of generational gaps, contrasts a young, bright-eyed Tracy with Brooke, who is just starting her thirties, although throughout we can tell they are in many ways the same confused person on opposite ends of the path to adulthood.

“I have trouble leaving places.”

Gerwig fills the movies with an ever-present sense of location, exploring both how they interact with and are shaped by the environments around them. LB is, from beginning to end, unmistakably about how Sacramento (and its landscape of nice homes, “poor” homes, churches, coffee shops) pushes Lady Bird to leave for college in New York City; once there, however, she reconsiders her identity even more, in one instance wandering around the city before finding solace in a Catholic cathedral that reminds her of home. MA is set almost entirely within NYC, as college freshman Tracy navigates a city in which there is everything to do yet few people to enjoy it with; when she meets Brooke, it is a lightning-fast montage of the two engaging in various different settings through the night, each vignette deepening our understanding of Brooke and how different she is from Tracy. They eventually leave for the woods of Greenwich, Connecticut to confront Brooke’s old friends in their literal glass house, which immediately comes to symbolize the illusion of adulthood and responsibility as we notice just how immature the owners are. FH takes this aspect to the limit, having Frances jettison from NYC apartment to NYC apartment, then back to her hometown in Sacramento, then back to her alma mater in Poughkeepsie, and even to Paris, France on a whim — an embarrassingly uneventful and impulsive trip that cements Gerwig’s acknowledgement that in the end, it’s the protagonists that influence their location.

“Sometimes I think I’m a genius and I wish I could just fast-forward my life to the part where everyone knows it.”

There is that running joke online about Gerwig’s characters never being able to pay the rent, a truthful observation and part of her constant examination of the tasks, occupations and other affairs that come with becoming an adult. In all three films, to varying degrees, the heroines strive to become creators or artists. While Tracy might be the only character with a clear career goal, she is bookended by the indecisive ambitions of Lady Bird and Frances, and the necessities of real life affect them all the same. In LB, which is the most painfully class-aware of the three films, Lady Bird takes jobs as a barista and grocery bagger to support herself while lying to her richer friends that she’s been forced to take the jobs to “learn responsibility”. In MA, Tracy is focused on her studies, but the perpetually unemployed Brooke’s spends much of the film working odd jobs as a waitress, soul cycle instructor, and tutoring Algebra. And in FH, of course, Frances spends the movie in a constant state of uncertainty in between working office jobs at dance studios, waiting parties and volunteering as an R.A. at her alma mater.

“Never gonna fall for…”

Gerwig’s films, in keeping with her style of performance, are packed to the brim with movement and physicality. While sex is often presented as awkward or constraining for her characters (only LB features the act itself, an underwhelming and unequal encounter for Lady Bird that explains Tracy and Frances’ disinterest in it), they are effortlessly in tune with their bodies and movement, seen dancing, jumping, spinning or thrashing their way through various situations. All of the characters laugh, cry, scream, fight and withdraw, as Gerwig is uninterested in showing us anything less than the full emotional spectrum of her protagonists. While all three films include a boy (never really “men”, as far as emotional maturity and tolerability go) entering the protagonists’ lives to varying degrees of significance, Gerwig’s handling of these relationships consistently communicates the fact they are not who they are looking for, and many times they are embodiments of lifestyles and personalities they are trying run away from. Gerwig takes the adage of learning to love oneself before someone else and injects it with a very specific and modern wisdom.

“So many things!”

There is also, of course, the cinematic and aesthetic joys of Gerwig’s trilogy. While not the director of her first two films, each one feels like an extension or variation on each other all the same. Frances Ha is a tender dramedy filtered through a beautifully rough, 16mm-like (but, like all three films, shot digitally) B&W look while scored exclusively by music from the French New Wave films Frances dreams of her life being like. Mistress America is a slick, 80s-styled but 40s-influenced screwball comedy set to a propulsive synth score. Finally, Lady Bird is a warm family drama told almost entirely in autumnal shades and set to the earnest, organic early-aughts instrumentations of Jon Brion. All three films make constant use of montage and compressed time, an aspect Gerwig demonstrably introduced to Baumbach’s work in FH, and various motifs from bathtubs to windows are reutilized throughout.

Ultimately, Gerwig has created a series of unique individual works of art, each a progression of her talents as she has come into her own as a writer/director, the only type of artist (and one of the most male-dominated) that mainstream film critics and fans are keen to acknowledge. In her interview with the Guardian for Frances Ha, she reveals a stunning desire to remove herself from the egocentrism of such artists. “It feels kind of disgusting, like baking a cake and eating it yourself,” Gerwig says of Baumbach pushing her to act in the film. “Like, I wrote it, and now I’m doing it! It felt very Orson Welles.” That fits with the fact that this is only her unofficial — accidental, maybe — trilogy, but a trilogy with emotional coherence and impact all the same. Whether or not Gerwig wants to acknowledge or wield her status as one of the “new auteurs” — a growing list including Jordan Peele, the Safdie brothers, Dee Rees— is her own prerogative, but God knows we are ready for a generation of film with less of the ego and self-interest that we associate with the “old greats” such as Orson Welles, and more of the tender, observational and possibly invisible genius of artists like Gerwig.

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21. Filmmaker. Writer for Film School Rejects. Featured on MTV, Indiewire & The A.V. Club.