Director in Focus: Greta Gerwig

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Greta Gerwig’s long history in the industry, as an accomplished actor and writer, ensured that her first films as a director were bound to be instant classics. Her directing is intricate and innovative without being distracting, with her films marked by good pacing, rich backgrounds and a showcase for raw, effective performances. After co-directing Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg in 2008, Gerwig waited nearly 10 years before returning to the role. She has only directed two films solo but both (Lady Bird and Little Women) are so expertly done that she absolutely deserves the praise she has received. And praised these films have been: each was nominated for Best Picture, at the 2018 and 2020 Oscars respectively, and Gerwig was singled out for Best Director in 2018 (yet snubbed for the same award earlier this year). Oscar nominations don’t always guarantee a good film – and both could easily be described as awards bait – but Gerwig’s distinctive directing style makes them standout even amongst their fellow nominees.

The Californian started out as a core contributor and ‘It girl’ of the mumblecore film movement, a sub-genre of indie filmmaking focusing on naturalistic acting and dialogue, often with improvised scenes. She starred in films like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Baghead (2008), and co-wrote the critically-acclaimed Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015) with her partner, Noah Baumbach –  best known for The Squid and the Whale and last year’s Marriage Story.

The influence of mumblecore’s preference for dialogue over action and authentic conversation is obvious in Gerwig’s writing. Lady Bird and Little Women feature heavy dialogue, with several long monologues as well as overlapping arguments. In contrast to the looser style of Gerwig’s own performances, as a director she prefers her actors to stick strictly to the script, keeping tight control over every word to ensure every moment lands as planned. Gerwig’s writing retains the essential true-to-life feel, with her dialogue feeling lived-in and earned. Large declarations of emotion are always foreshadowed by smaller beats, while moments of silence are treated with weight as they juxtapose the constant talking of her characters. Little Women’s imbricated conversations and petty arguments nail the loving antagonism of sibling relationships, creating an atmosphere of warm affection in the March house, especially compared to the stately-but-silent Laurence estate.

In Lady Bird, the dialogue between Lady Bird and her best friend Julie highlights the nuances and complications of adolescent friendships through the hilariously self-indulgent language of teenagers. At least partially autobiographical, the film’s direction emphasises the protagonist’s self-centredness and the directionless feeling of being a senior in high school. Gerwig deftly handles the movement of time in Lady Bird, the frustration behind Saoirse Ronan’s performance and, most importantly, the fraught relationship between mother and daughter.

At first glance, the major accomplishment of Little Women is distinguishing between the two timelines. In the ‘childhood’ timeline everything is bathed in a warm golden glow, representing how we view our youth and how unreliable that can be, whilst the ‘present day’ timeline is much harsher, emphasising the more complicated character of adulthood. Just as noteworthy are the more understated shots that illuminate the quality of different relationships, with the concurrent timelines allowing Gerwig to juxtapose similar scenes with different outcomes. The writer-director allows moments of humour the space they need to develop, treating them with the same amount of importance as the dramatic scenes, sometimes quickly cutting to a character reaction shot to underline the joke.

Deftly exploring issues of memory and childhood, Gerwig specialises in examining the ways in which we love and loathe our families – as well as the intersection of womanhood and creativity that speaks to her own career in the film industry. Her characters are never allowed to fall into simple hero or villain categories. We watch Lady Bird mess things up, often berating her friends and family, and still be treated with empathy and compassion by the script and direction, enabling us to understand that this is just merely part of growing up. Amy March, long viewed as the most annoying character in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, is transformed into a complicated, practical and engaging character by Gerwig’s adaptation, helped by Florence Pugh’s outstanding performance. Her study of very human characters is never cloying; a skilful balancing act between presenting characters sympathetically and critically is one of Gerwig’s many strengths. For all these reasons, I’ll definitely be lining up to see her next project, reportedly a live-action Barbie film, if only to see the director’s favourites Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet star as Barbie and Ken. Fingers crossed.

Little Women was released in the UK via Sony Pictures Entertainment. Watch the trailer below: 

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