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Greta Gerwig is a renaissance artist. She is, to quote The Hold Steady, “a damn good dancer.” She’s a superb actor, in everything from her leading turns in Frances Ha and Mistress America to her distinct work as part of 20th Century Women’s ensemble. She’s a director, and her solo debut Lady Bird, has been wildly and widely acclaimed, including by the folks I write alongside here. Speaking personally, I’m particularly taken with her work as a writer, particularly on the aforementioned Frances Ha and Mistress America.
On an immediate level, both scripts are very, very funny and that comedy is varied. Frances Ha has everything from physical hijinks to impressively bleak twists of fate. There’s a play fight between Gerwig’s Frances and co-star Mickey Sumner’s Sophie that’s later echoed with a friend who’s not nearly as in tune with Frances as Sophie. There’s an impulsive, disastrous trip to Paris that ends with Frances’ friends who are based in the city finally getting back to her after a weekend of her being unable to reach them. They’re inviting her and an interesting, handsome French friend of theirs to what sounds like a lovely dinner. Frances learns this in a cab. In New York. On the way to one of several temporary homes she has over the course of the movie.
Mistress America is a bit less physical, since it doesn’t call as much attention to Gerwig’s skill at moving on camera. But it does spotlight the perils of hiding an apartment in a commercially zoned building, a badly executed attempt at seduction and a society of snobby lit kids who present each new member with a beautiful leather briefcase. After striving for most of Mistress America to obtain one of these cases and finally being accepted into the rarified ranks of the be-briefcased, Lola Kirke’s Tracy will end up hurling hers into the river. From a writing standpoint, it’s really impressive how well Gerwig and Baumbach not only implement a wide range of comedy, but make it into a coherent whole. Poorly balanced tonal and stylistic shifts have damaged more than one movie (see Baumbach’s own worthy and frustrating While We’re Young for a prime example), and it’s always a treat to see them handled well.
To go a bit deeper, and get to the core of Gerwig’s skills as a writer, I’d like to take a look at the way she constructs her characters, both those she performs and otherwise. Her heroines come from a place of modest privilege, if sometimes thinly-stretched means. Frances Ha’s title character is nominally poor, but the sort of poor “that’s offensive to actual poor people.” They’re well-meaning and good-hearted, and simultaneously they can be selfish, blinkered and, in the case of Mistress America’s Tracy, astonishingly cruel. They make bad decisions, sometimes calamitously bad. Gerwig’s Brooke, Mistress America’s co-lead, is struggling with a number of burned professional bridges and ideas that she has let sputter out. When she tries to turn one of those ideas into something real, her past history leads her would-be business partners to assume that she’ll fail and treat her according to that assumption. Tracy decides to mine Brooke’s life for her fiction without even telling her, let alone asking her permission. In doing so she hurts and alienates her closest friends, and for a time finds herself lonelier than she is anywhere else in the film. Frances doesn’t put together a backup plan in the event that she cannot hack it as a professional dancer, and has to scramble to make ends meet when she’s cut from her company before a holiday season she had been counting on. Sophie doesn’t talk to her partner, the preppily-nicknamed Patch (Patrick Heusinger) about the misgivings she has about pulling up stakes and abruptly moving to Japan for his job. This eventually leads her to a massive, stress-induced breakdown.
Gerwig does not sugar-coat or excuse her characters’ failings. They are as important to the characters’ functioning as their virtues are. Sometimes she plays them for comedy, such as the highlight of Frances’ Paris boondoggle arguably being her trying to see the Shrek spinoff Puss in Boots (it’s not even clear that she gets into the movie). Other times, she steps back and lets the hurt and the anguish be. The falling-out between Frances and Sophie, built on Frances’ resentment for her friend apparently moving on to bigger and better things and Sophie’s frustration with Frances’ clinginess and refusal to dial down her mocking of Patch even when he’s in the same room, is outright painful. It isn’t contrived, it isn’t forced, it isn’t inevitable. It’s what happens when communication breaks down and conclusions are jumped to – people who care about each other hurt each other, and the wounds they inflict take a lot to heal.
But, in both Frances Ha and Mistress America, just because it takes a lot to heal a wound does not mean the wound cannot be healed. It won’t be immediate, and there will always be a scar, but Gerwig’s heroines step up and at least make a start on the work. Frances and Sophie reconcile after Frances helps her best friend through a major dark night of the soul. They may never live together again, but they’ll always love each other, and their friendship will endure. Though she does not make it as a full-time dancer, Frances is able to feed her passion by working as a choreographer, in addition to a few other day jobs. Brooke and Tracy don’t become actual sisters, but they do reach a better understanding of each other and share a Thanksgiving meal as peers and friends, rather than the lopsided and ultimately toxic mentor/mentee subject/observer hybrid whatsit they had previously pursued.
Gerwig’s work as a writer is remarkable. I can’t wait to see how she directs it.