Greta Gerwig’s Blockbuster Success Comes Down to Empathy and Truth

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The post Greta Gerwig’s Blockbuster Success Comes Down to Empathy and Truth appeared first on Consequence.

In 2015’s Mistress America, Greta Gerwig is mid-monologue when she hits a line that sinks its hooks into the viewer and refuses to let go. “I just am in love with everything,” she says. “But I can’t figure out how to make myself work in the world.”

If that sentiment feels familiar, maybe it’s because it feels adjacent to many of the themes running through Greta Gerwig’s box office summer smash, Barbie, where our hero worries that she’s not good enough for anything. Or perhaps it recalls Little Women (2019)’s Jo in the attic, full of confidence and determination that coexist with her crippling fear that her success in the world will doom her to a life of loneliness.

While not directed by Gerwig, Mistress America was co-written by the actress-turned-director (with real-life partner Noah Baumbach). The same goes for 2012’s Frances Ha, a meditative and sneakily hysterical black-and-white picture that centers on a flighty, unreliable protagonist in her 20s. “I’m so embarrassed,” Greta as Frances confesses at one point. “I’m not a real person yet.”

Whether in work she’s written and acted in, or her three killer solo directorial efforts (Lady BirdLittle Women, and Barbie), that’s what it all often boils down to for Gerwig. She’s so empathetic to women in the midst of change, whether it be Lady Bird’s senior year of high school or a plastic doll’s existential crisis about her purpose and place in the world (or between worlds).

As her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird put Gerwig’s essential perspective front and center — compare it to some of the other Best Picture nominees at the 2018 Academy Awards, like Dunkirk, The Darkest Hour, or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and it feels like an outlier in all the best ways.

While anchored in Gerwig’s point of view, Lady Bird hinges on Saoirse Ronan‘s performance in the titular role, a high-wire acting turn that approached the hell of being a teenage girl with patience and understanding. Yes, Lady Bird herself is a bit of a nightmare; she gets herself suspended from school, and can’t help but argue with her mother even in the most tender moments. She lies to her boyfriend to try and seem cooler. Somehow, though, the script manages not to condemn her, or even look down on her, for her many mistakes — there’s a refreshing frankness to the way Lady Bird’s story is told, a warmth and closeness that makes her character feel tangible and horribly relatable.

lady bird greta gerwig birthday barbie a24
lady bird greta gerwig birthday barbie a24

Lady Bird (A24)

It’s with a similar tenderness that Gerwig handles the character of Marion McPherson, brought to life expertly by Laurie Metcalf. It’s in the quiet moments that the audience starts to understand Marion, like an exchange with a co-worker at the hospital that reveals she’s the kind of woman who cares enough to buy something for a friend’s colleague’s newborn baby.

Once she arrives home, her life falls back into chaos, but she takes a moment for herself on her way home from the night shift. Gerwig’s script, in all its softness and quiet truth, reads: “Marion drives back home. It is romantic somehow. She loves these streets, loves the turns she knows so well. When she’s not resenting the stuck-ness of her own life she has an enormous capacity to love it.”

There’s a reason both Lady Bird and Barbie leave so many viewers with the unshakable feeling to call their mothers. While so many of her films focus on the whirlwind of a woman in a metamorphosis of some kind, there are always other, often older women on the fringes, and Gerwig makes them feel like they matter. And it’s because they do. When her words leap off the page, we’re reminded that our mothers were once girls, too, with dreams of their own, who have desires, goals, hopes, and wishes for the world beyond those we know. She gives grace to the interiority of women at any age in a way very few other filmmakers working today do.

In 2019’s Little Women, Gerwig also does something remarkable with the character of Amy (Florence Pugh), long considered selfish and irritating in previous adaptations of the classic novel. While Jo is undeniably the hero and heart of the story, Gerwig’s understanding of film and how to construct a moving narrative yields an entirely fresh take on the character (aided, of course, by a truly spectacular performance from Pugh). Clearly a lover of film at the end of the day, Gerwig understands that the viewer tends to root for the couple presented to us first; by showing us Amy and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) as “endgame,” so to speak, before jumping back in time and showing us his friendship with Jo, the blow of her relationship with Laurie falling apart is softened.

Here, too, Gerwig ties in the discomfort that comes from leaving youth behind and not being quite ready to step into adulthood. When Meg confirms her marriage, Jo laments, “You will be bored of him in two years. But we will be interesting forever.”

Little Women (Sony)
Little Women (Sony)

Little Women (Sony)

Gerwig’s love of her craft came through recently on the Barbie press tour as well — while Ryan Gosling’s Kenormous antics were great fun, and Margot Robbie was appropriately stunning and engaging at every turn, Gerwig’s interviews (particularly the below chat with Letterboxd) showed just how much care she puts into her work as a director, too.

Over the course of fifteen minutes, she dives into work from Jacques Demy, raves about set pieces in Singin’ In the Rain, and revels in the “authentic artificiality” of hand-painted sets in classics like The Red Shoes. Whatever the opposite of phoning it in is, that’s what Gerwig is always doing — a project based on an iconic Mattel toy could have been treated flippantly in the hands of other writer-directors, but it certainly wasn’t with this one.

In Frances Ha, there’s a moment that’s become known as the “What I Want” monologue. (Watch it in full here if you’ve never seen it — or, better yet, close out of this article and go watch the movie in full.)  It’s vulnerable and earnest, and also so agonizingly out of place for the event Frances is attending: “It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them, and they know it, and they love you and you know it,” she starts. It doesn’t feel dissimilar in tone to America Ferreira’s monologue in Barbie, in that the character might be verbalizing something for the first time, but it’s also something she knows to be deeply true. Her words are a bit stilted and strike as unfamiliar to her in real time, but she knows she’s right.

It’s that thoughtfulness, and Gerwig’s uncanny ability to tap into the truth of what it feels like to be a woman, that feels like the strongest connective tissue between her work across directing efforts, writing work, and acting appearances. Acting, after all, isn’t pretending; it’s living as truthfully as possible under imagined circumstances, and perhaps that’s part of the reason Gerwig onscreen feels just as honest as she does with her pen, or behind a camera.

“If I was a girl in a book, this would all be so easy,” Jo laments in Little Women. The world is often not an especially kind place, and it can feel impossibly difficult to try and verbalize the experiences that result from that reality sometimes — particularly as a woman.

Thankfully, we have Greta Gerwig here to help.

Greta Gerwig’s Blockbuster Success Comes Down to Empathy and Truth
Mary Siroky

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