The film opens on two women in a park, each poised for attack. They lunge at each other, stumbling, arms flailing, and they break into laughter. The film cuts, and now one is dancing on the sidewalk, waiting for the subway, doing laundry, enjoying a beer. She’s an oddly arresting screen presence – blonde, lanky, and a little unsure of every move she makes. So goes the opening scene to Frances Ha, a loving and incredibly sweet paean to adulthood, uncertainty, and New York City, as well as many people’s introduction to Greta Gerwig, one of our least-known but most promising bona fide movie stars in the making.
Greta Gerwig first came to prominence (here, a very relative term) in the late 00s as part of the then up-and-coming movement of micro-budget films known as Mumblecore, which relied heavily on improvisationally-inclined actors and upper-middle class post-college angst. Her biggest roles early on were in the films of such Mumblecore pioneers as Aaron Katz, Jay and Mark Duplass, and perhaps most notably Joe Swanberg, who directed her in Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, the latter of which Gerwig also co-directed and co-wrote. It would not be until she started her professional (eventually romantic) relationship with Noah Baumbach, himself more an ally than a proper member of Mumblecore, that she would receive more widespread recognition.
In 2010, Gerwig appeared alongside Ben Stiller in one of his best “serious” performances in Baumbach’s Greenberg, which garnered her unprecedented amounts of praise, racking up even more attention than Stiller’s more publicized performance. This collaboration (and Baumbach’s simultaneous divorce with Jennifer Jason Leigh) opened the door for Gerwig to become the director’s muse, a development which ultimately led to Frances Ha, which Gerwig co-wrote. Frances, strangely bubbly for the normally acidic Baumbach, gave Gerwig a great deal of exposure, finally culminating in a Golden Globe nomination – a remarkable achievement, given the relatively low profile of the film and the star-chasing tendency of the Globes.
Gerwig as the titular Frances plays a lot like her previous Mumblecore-styled characters: awkward, quirky, waffling between adolescence and adulthood. What makes Frances stand apart from her earlier roles, though, is that the film around her is, unlike the early Mumblefilms, beautifully photographed (in black and white, no less) and enthusiastically committed to lovingly documenting its star. Much has been said of the film’s debt to the French New Wave, and it’s an appropriate comparison on multiple levels – Baumbach’s presentation on Gerwig recalls nothing so much as Jean-Luc Godard photographing Anna Karina. In one of Frances’ more celebrated sequences, Gerwig dances through the streets of New York to the tune of David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” a la Denis Lavant in Mauvais Sang, and what should be a woefully egregious show of a director taking pretty pictures of his new girlfriend ends up genuinely invigorating on the merits of Gerwig’s natural charms.
When we think of movie stars, we tend to think of Meryl Streep or George Clooney, Marlon Brando or Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman — those beautiful, unapproachable icons of the screen. They are, for better or worse, put on pedestals and held above us mere mortals. That impression seems to be changing with the rise of such stars as Jennifer Lawrence and Channing Tatum, actors who have eagerly built up personas as self-deprecating, down-to-earth individuals who are liked and related to both on the screen and off. These two examples are still, clearly, movie star-esque, and you would not be unreasonable to assume their relatability is all a little calculated, but it still shows that what we look for in our entertainers is shifting.
Greta Gerwig is, in a way, the logical conclusion of this shift. Her appeal lies mostly in her mixture of quirk and banality, her ability to be funny but vulnerable, distinctive but believable. She consistently manages to evoke a sort of self-conscious improvisational nature, like someone who’s worried about impressing whoever they’re talking to, or that they’ll look bad in front of the camera they don’t even know is there. She can totally embody that goofy, beguiling awkward charm that Jennifer Lawrence can only play at, however convincingly, and she’s only gotten better at it as time goes on. At her best, she’s the very image of millennial anxiety, by turns delightful, scarily familiar, and painful to watch, still striving and scrambling where other stars would have found their place just in time for the credits.
Of course, Gerwig is still by no means a big name. Her most recent film, Mistress America, again with Noah Baumbach, was hardly seen, and very few of her movies have broken more than a couple million at the box office. She would be a worthwhile investment for higher-budget fare – she’s clearly talented, and she offers something few other actors do, though maybe she’s more comfortable in a low-budget environment. Even if she does not have the draw of, say, Brangelina, she can hold the screen like few other actresses out there today. A true star can still captivate an audience, and Gerwig is definitely one of our most valuable – and underrated – movie stars today.