2016 was a cold dark year by and large (except for those few sweaty months we spent stuck on trains or queueing for festival toilets along with the rest of the hip youth). Years like 2016 need to be liberally sprinkled with delight and positivity as far as possible to make them bearable, and thankfully for us much of that can be found in filmy form to make the transition from 2016 to 2017 as pain-free as possible. So thank goodness for the work of one actress who manages to offer a tangible glimpse into the kind of honest, sweet, true and hopeful lives that we all might actually have a shot at leading.
I’m talking, of course, about Greta Gerwig.
For the uninitiated, the delightfully named Greta Celeste Gerwig could be described as a cross between the less annoying big sister of Hannah Horvath from Girls or the marginally more and simultaneously less cynical older cousin of Summer Finn, but to rank her alongside other women of the mumblecore and manic pixie movements is a tired cliche I don’t fancy indulging any further. For her work in recent years – including her standout lead performance in what might be my favourite film of 2016, Maggie’s Plan – is the kind so rarely seen in cinema, the kind of relentlessly positive yet entirely genuine heroine that the over-exerted ‘romantic drama’ (which is probably the only way to categorise Maggie’s Plan) really needs.
Where we’ve had a spate of films in recent years – Young Adult, Blue Jasmine – showing women at various stages of either refusing to ‘grow up’ or attempting to reassess when their lives go off-track, Greta’s characters seem to achieve the impossible for the modern cinematic heroine and to an extent the modern woman. They just get on with living, in a quietly revolutionary way.
I’ve been indebted to the work of Greta Gerwig for years as I’ve found that, whenever I encounter a major life change or crisis, she’s helpfully made a film about it. When my close-as-a-sister best friend and I drifted apart, she’s helpfully already guided me through it with Frances Ha. In career uncertainty and crisis of identity, she helpfully made Mistress America. Last year, for anyone adrift on a romantically barren ocean or uncertain about a future surrounding a family, she stars in Maggie’s Plan as the Emma-esque Maggie, but with the helpful twist of knowing what she wants from her own life and quietly enabling it (regardless of others in it) alongside trying to solve everyone else’s problems for them.
Where historically characters like this would blithely go through life saving hapless supporting characters left right and centre before suffering the inevitable breakdown and finding their own salvation (preferably in the arms of some hunk), Greta’s Maggie seems to exist on a higher plane where all these types of solutions are merely secondary. It’s difficult to explain the revelatory experience of seeing this character go through life on screen, surrounded by divorces, broken families, death, sadness and unrequited love, retaining a pure, uncynical and honest outlook on life throughout, but it is a performance that very few could offer and is so much more special and rare for it. Except that she’s done it as Frances, and as Brooke. She’s just grown up each time.
Enabling this growing up of both actress and characters is further enabled by the helpful absence of the romantic foil in the majority of her stories. There are, of course, men in these stories and some great actors they are too – a baby-faced Adam Driver in Frances Ha, great supporting turns from Travis Fimmel and Bill Hader in Maggie’s Plan to name but a few – but largely free of being required to conform to trappings of romantic leads themselves. Maggie’s Plan (the only one of the group here not created by the genius pairing of Gerwgi and Noah Baumbach) is the only one that really makes a big deal of a central romantic plot, making way for these films to quietly tell stories that need more telling; platonic love stories between women united by blood or circumstance.
I’ve previously described Frances Ha as one of the most romantic films I can think of (don’t ask what my first choice was), showing a supportive, complicated, messy but ultimately loving relationship outside the rigid confines of sexual attraction. Similarly in Mistress America, the true relationship drama comes from Tracy and Brooke, the would-be baby and older sister, with the former acolyte’s adoration and admiration of her big sister figure giving away to mourning and disenchantment with a fallen idol and humanising discovery that she is human too. In Maggie’s Plan, the relationship matures again to being about motherhood, which is why even though this is not a Baumbach-Gerwig production and is very different stylistically it feels very much like the final film in this not-quite trilogy.
Perhaps the thing that is most comforting and unifying about the breadth of Greta’s roles is that purity and lack of cynicism, a trend we could do with seeing more of in the cinema. Years ago, if someone had told you to see a black and white film about a struggling dancer living in New York against a backdrop of charmingly but fauxly impoverished hipsters who eat Chinese food at 3pm and dance through the streets to Bowie, you’d probably have rolled your eyes. But I defy you not to be swept up by the relentless positivity of Frances Ha, the quiet achievement of a young person working hard to achieve small, tangible goals, and not feel a little bit charmed by her ridiculousness (going to Paris on a whim, for example, or uttering the line “I’m too tall to marry!”). In Mistress America, observed through the eyes of the massively underrated Lola Kirke, we see how this character might have grown up on a diet of the American dream. In Maggie’s Plan, we meet her as seen through the lens of a would-be Rockwell painting. She presents to us a woman growing up through the lens of expectation, against the backdrop of societal and movie tradition, and somehow manages to shrug it entirely off her shoulders.
2017 is set to bring Greta Gerwig two supporting roles in two major movies – Jackie and 21st Century Women – while she also took a supporting part in last year’s Weiner Dog. But it’s her starring turns as the 21st century heroine everyone really needs to have in their lives – quirky, off-beat, comic, sweet, honest, unpretentious and simply real – that should cement her as a staple on the cinematic landscape for years to come.