I watched Frances Ha at the wrong time in my life; I was too young to quite get the character. I didn’t understand her, why she wasn’t aware of the incredibly embarrassing things she was saying, why she went to Paris, and why she couldn’t accept the strain in her relationship with her friend Sophie. Every move she made confused me, but there was one salient moment of that film I was drawn to: the brief montage where she goes back home. There’s little dialogue really heard and most of the scenes are accompanied by a simple score, but what was communicated was so clear and effective. This was Frances’s zone of safety, everyone here loved her, she understood the place, the people, and they got her on a level that most people in New York didn’t. At the conclusion of the holidays, she ventures back to New York City, a place where she has been scrambling for an apartment and dance work for the bulk of the film. Still, she returns and leaves the cocoon that is her hometown and family.
After rewatching the film, there are many more scenes that I’ve come to appreciate, but this one remains a standout for me. Maybe it’s because I saw it mirrored in my own life or because it really defines who this character is on a molecular level. She has a good family, people that love her, and she has a fighting spirit to do everything it takes to achieve something many people wouldn’t even attempt in the competitive world of dance.
Frances Ha was the first major writing collaboration between Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, who directed the film. They have since gone on to work on many different projects together and are currently romantic partners. Sometimes with writer duos, it’s hard to tell the distinctive voice of one writer from the other, but with Frances Ha I could hear Greta Gerwig’s literary voice in the softness of the scene at her old college when she reconnects with Sophie and in her rambling but prophetic wish for a soulmate during the dinner scene. In any case, what I heard made me enthusiastic enough to see Lady Bird without ever having even watched a trailer for it, a film that I’ve now seen more than once in a cinema, something I’ve rarely done in my life.
The character of Lady Bird has been written about extensively, especially when the film was lauded during the awards season buzz, because she was such a specific person. She could be weird at times (for instance, her insistence on being called Lady Bird instead of Christine), but she wasn’t a loner and she had good friendships. She had lots of aspirations and had no qualms in believing she would achieve them. And more than all of that, she went after the things she wanted whether they be boys, roles in student government, or fancy, expensive colleges on a completely separate coast from where she grew up and lived. I’m so used to seeing girls on screen struggle with or even be punished for their ambition, but in Lady Bird there’s a refreshing lack of shame in her pursuits.
As a solo directorial debut, the film was impressive, garnering a slew of awards and heaps of praise. Coming-of-age is one of my favorite genres, but so few of the more famous films are about young women. In press for the movie, Gerwig expressed that was part of what she was trying to achieve when writing the screenplay: to finally have a female lead show the complexities, pitfalls, and growth of a teenager coming into their own as seen in films like 400 Blows and Boyhood (Zuckerman, “How Greta Gerwig Turned the Personal ‘Lady Bird’ Into a Perfect Movie”). One of the aspects I so adore about the coming-of-age genre is that, when done well, there’s always something to grab onto that you can relate to a past or current experience since everyone has had moments of exponential growth and of course everyone should always be still growing as a person. In Lady Bird, teen audiences could see a reflection of the shaky relationships they had with their own parents as they struggled to break into adulthood; on the other side, parents could see and identify with the struggles of being a parent to a teen yearning to break free from them. Although I didn’t have near the amount of daring Lady Bird had, I could see a past version of myself in her dreams of college and east-coast living. Even though I was in college when the film came out, I could relate to her the scenes near the end of the film when she finds herself in a new city trying to find her bearings in a different social and geographical terrain.
Lady Bird is one of my top ten favorite films, but I still felt a lot of hesitation to watch Little Women after Gerwig announced that her next project would be a new adaptation of the classic book. Similar to most film lovers I’m sure, I have grown very sick of watching adaptations of films that have been made before. It’s always seemed like a crowd-pleasing move that studios love because it can be an easy box-office win and I felt like with many newer versions of adaptations there was a fear of straying too far from the material, making the result a dull retread. I thought that Gerwig could do so many other things, and since she showed so much range with her original creations, I wanted to see another film wholly her own without a source material to tie everything to.
On the urging of several friends, though, I did eventually see Little Women and discovered how much she made this adaptation a distinctly different version of the Louise May Alcott novel. During my viewing, I found untapped respect for the character of Amy March, who in other adaptations had always been my least favorite March sister. I liked seeing the drive in Jo March to be a great writer despite what anyone else said, which felt parallel in some respects to Frances from Frances Ha. The first meeting between Laurie and the Marches and the dance between Laurie and Jo felt alive and the group dynamics in both were true to their characters while adding new dimensions to them. Jo March is a beloved character; so many see themselves in or aspire to be her. She doesn’t settle, believes in her sisters, and is incredibly sharp, but Gerwig found a way in the quieter scenes to show more of her vulnerabilities and struggles. She made her more human, relatable, and somehow even more lovable.
Gerwig made room in the script to explore each of the sisters’ personalities — they don’t just fade into the background while Jo shines. In a film with so many family scenes and such a large ensemble cast, that can be very hard to do, but Gerwig pulled it off and facilitated great performances from the full cast. Her inclusion of the conversation between Jo and the publisher as they negotiate a deal over her book made the film more contemporary. It felt similar to so many discussions that are still had in publisher, production company, and art gallery offices as women negotiate the means of displaying or releasing their art to the public. Once again, Gerwig elevated this material to expand its audience; while there will always be a built-in fanbase for Little Women, she gave a new adaptation to them that would deliver some fun, new aspects and provided a way for new fans or viewers to see the story’s timeless qualities.
Her projects’ connective tissue seems to be how she approaches capturing female artists as they become, or are becoming, someone who supports themselves with art. In Frances, we see a dancer who has the seeds of a great choreographer within her, which she finally pursues at the conclusion of her story. In Lady Bird and in Jo March, we have a writer who uses the written word to escape their reality and to make sense of it all. Gerwig’s characters always seem to have some internal struggle when it comes to going after their artistic desires and the reality of their life circumstances, which often hold them back from their goals. Yet these characters push on and we feel linked to them since they are chasing desires many people have: to pursue the job or the projects of your dreams, to live according to your own wants, to be happy or hopeful for what the future brings. While Gerwig’s next project may veer from these more specific themes, I have a feeling we may see another heroine fighting to live an authentic life with aspirations that are different from what is expected of her.
This summer, Gerwig has set the internet and fans ablaze with anticipation as we all wait for the July 21 release of Barbie, directed by Gerwig who also teamed up with Noah Baumbach for the screenplay. The costumes from set have been all over social media and resulted in a spike of fuchsia pink sales on retail websites (Navlakha, “Think pink: The rise of #Barbiecore”). At the time of this writing, the trailer has 31 million views on YouTube and people are placing bets on which movie will win out in the box office as it’s sharing a release date with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. In just two films, Gerwig has amassed fans that are willing to watch whatever she does next and show up in Barbie–centric costumes in July. I’m excited to see more of her work and hope to see her films for years to come, but for now I will be one of the many to watch the premiere of what is sure to be a new, original take on Barbie.
Noni Ford is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She’s worked in voice coordination, independent film, and literary management, and primarily writes film criticism and short stories. She’s currently pursuing a Masters degree at IU’s Luddy School and is an IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Fellow.