Greta Gerwig is well-known among those who follow indie cinema as the poster-child of the ‘Mumblecore’ movement (see below). She typically plays understated, outsider characters who lack confidence but possess a flawed charm which Gerwig excels at manipulating to bring out subtle and deeper truths that other actors in similar roles have failed to capture. This is an art form which Gerwig has made her own through a series of increasingly wide-reaching indie films which she has co-written and/or starred in. It has become common for people to use the term ‘a Gerwig film’ to describe subject matter that is clever and kooky with a heart (cutely serious has also been bandied around a fair bit). Her rise in prominence has been partly aided by the fact that the directors who repeatedly hire her (Baumbach and The Duplass brothers for example) are also inspired by her, thus allowing and even demanding that she bring elements of herself to the characters that she plays (Baghead and Greenberg – see below – being perfect examples of this). There is something comforting about these films which often deal with difficult and trying subject matter (the confusing battleground of life as a post-college twenty-something faced with the concept of failure on a number of different levels being a favourite topic) but they somehow manage to leave you with the feeling that everything is going to be okay in the end. Having recently gone through a rocky patch of my own and simultaneously having had my fill of Woody Allen’s recent rocky patch, I turned to my faithful Gerwig collection to find relief among all the self-consciousness…
This movement in the indie film scene originated in the US and is typified by low-budget films that have an authentic, unvarnished approach to dialogue and interaction between characters. Often they will appear unscripted or include a lot of improvisation, and as a result tend to be labelled as ‘quirky’, but with the costs of digital production getting cheaper by the day, the movement appears to be growing and has even spun off into a subgenre of German cinema (with films such as Tom Lass’ Papa Gold being a recent example).
Here are the films that feature in my Gerwig pile:
Hannah Takes The Stairs (2007)
Directed by Joe Swanberg, another regular of the mumblecore scene, Hannah (Gerwig) is an intern spending her summer at a production company in Chicago, during which time she develops a crush on two of her scriptwriter colleagues. Hannah’s confusion and misguided attempts at direction are both irritating and charming by turn but the film is refreshing in its honest portrayal of her neuroses which intensify under the pressure of the realities of life working in the creative sector as well as the inevitable collapse of the tryst. This film may be a little indulgent in its mumblecoreness – it has been criticised for its extensive breeze-shooting scenes and the fact it lets its characters run free rather than casting any judgement of its own, which some have found frustrating, but I can’t help but feel that this rather accurately reflects the office environment and the battle between our work and life personas.
Swanberg followed this up with Nights and Weekends in 2008, a film about long distance relationships which he co-starred in and co-wrote with Gerwig. It’s undeniably Woody Allen-ish in its focus on neurotic characters but somehow falls short of Allen’s usual wit and charm. A good one for the hungover pile…
This film was co-written and directed by Noah Baumbach (perhaps best known for New York indie classics such as The Squid and The Whale). It stars Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg, a forty-something man recovering from a massive bout of depression, who goes to stay with his sister and her husband after a suicide attempt. He meets the family’s personal assistant Florence (Gerwig), and they form an emotional connection over common feelings of disillusionment and a shared sense of being lost in life.
Damsels in Distress (2011)
Having done no research beforehand, I half expected this film (directed by Whit Stillman) to drift into that familiar Clueless trope of the new girl on campus who falls in with the ‘popular crowd’ and ends up subverting the existing social order. Within a few minutes however, it becomes obvious that this film is definitely not going to go down that route. Newcomer Lily (Analeigh Tipton) falls in with an Austen-nerdy clique who are each witty and intelligent but also characteristically flawed (the emergence and acceptance of these various flaws being a major driving point for the film’s plot). The leader of the group, Violet (Gerwig), has made it her mission to help those who she views as less fortunate than herself, to which end she deliberately seeks out emotionally stunted men from the nearby frat house to date and runs a ‘suicide prevention centre’ which offers solace in the form of donuts, sympathy and tap dancing. Everything unravels when Lily is bought a drink by a stranger in a bar (played by Adam Brody) who becomes the object of both Lily and Violet’s attention.
The characters are annoying, difficult and frustrating – traits which are slowly tugged at throughout the film and gently poked at (the bad English accent adopted by one of the group throughout the film thankfully being one of them). Zany comedy, absurd musical numbers and eccentricity that reflects the deeper truths make this film a refreshingly and delightfully different entrant to the ‘college drama’ scene.
Baumbach and Francis Ha (2012)
Gerwig’s next starring role will be in Noah Baumbach’s new film Frances Ha, where she plays a woman at the end of her twenties who has to come to terms with her best friend and room-mate moving out of their shared apartment and the changes in the direction of her life that result. The film has received critical acclaim at a couple of film festivals in the States and will hopefully be on release more generally sometime in 2013.