Greta Gerwig, Dancing with Herself

John Cuneo

Comic actress Greta Gerwig has a versatile look—indolent or boyish, athletic or glamorous, always blond and beautiful but with broad shoulders and doughy cheeks that make her resemble an improbably attractive rugby player. The through line in her work is her pained gaze telegraphing that she’s alone in the world, and she wouldn’t expect otherwise.

Gerwig started her career in movies referred to as “mumble-core.” By definition, a mumblecore film was a low-key drama set in post-college American life in the first decade of the 21st century, made with sweat and the contents of a piggy bank. Many of the actors were nonprofessionals, and the stories they told were about well-educated people too creative to get a law degree but too pragmatic to idealize bohemian poverty.

Both in front of and behind the camera, the mumblecore crew seemed like happy underachievers, confronting their tenuous existence with a mix of navel-gazing and bravery—in their element before the economy crashed and social media came along, with its opportunities and pressures to seek followers and a wider audience. This was a genre that celebrated the precocity of a certain kind of privileged, extended youth, with characters so different from the compulsively entrepreneurial go-getters graduating from their alma maters today that it’s hard to believe their moment came less than ten years ago.

Gerwig was one of few recurring females in the mumblecore universe. She appeared in three movies directed by Joe Swanberg and one by the Duplass brothers, in each playing a buoyant intern type who expresses a deep insecurity by being incredibly kind. In Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), Gerwig’s character is an associate at a production company run by guys. “You’re the smartest person here,” one of her bosses tells her. Gerwig’s character accepts the compliment but doesn’t ask for a raise.

After stealing several films in a supporting role, Gerwig is finally set to own one. Frances Ha, a favorite at last fall’s film festivals, is directed by Noah Baumbach, who previously specialized in harshly funny indie dramas set among misanthropic intellectuals like The Squid and the Whale (2005). Baumbach’s work is often criticized for creating characters too scathing to believe, but this is a cheerful movie that fluidly dances between art and life (the title character is heavily based on Gerwig, who co-wrote the movie and is dating Baumbach). It’s shot in crisp black and white, recalling Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and the soundtrack includes airy tunes by Georges Delerue, who scored countless New Wave French classics. At a moment when we seem concerned about young people, as demonstrated by daily news stories about how they’re loaded down with debt (and overly worried articles about how they’re always texting and unable to make eye contact) Frances Ha is an argument for the dreamy beauty of being untethered.

 

Gerwig plays Frances, a 27-year-old apprentice at a dance company who doesn’t have a boyfriend, money, or a career plan; her most intimate bond and proudest possession in life is the relationship with her best friend from college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). But Sophie abandons Frances for a preppy financial analyst named Patch. There’s little arc to the plot. Frances lives in Brooklyn with Sophie and then moves to Manhattan, where she lives with two trust-fund kids who help cover the rent; she goes home to Sacramento (also Gerwig’s hometown) and takes a poorly planned two-day vacation to Paris. At her lowest, she spends the summer working as a hostess at Vassar College. Frances distances herself from Sophie just when she needs her friend the most, preferring in their family dynamic to play the mother instead of the child. The pair’s closeness belies an odd, fierce competition in which each strives to be not the most successful but the most content.

As Frances, Gerwig has an unkempt beauty. She’s clumsy, wears a uniform of tunic and leggings, and constantly needs to push her hair away from her face. She’s shot in a way that makes her appear almost ogreishly tall, towering above the tidy women with clipped bangs that her male roommates bring home at night. She offers to take one of her dates out for dinner, then raggedly sprints through the East Village looking for an ATM and returns a long while later, bleeding from her arm. “I’m not a real person yet,” she tells him by way of apology.

Frances’s handsome date is played by Adam Driver, best known as the reptilian, sweet but borderline sociopathic boyfriend of Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath character on Girls. Frances Ha is bound to draw argued-over comparisons with Dunham’s series. As writers and performers, Gerwig and Dunham both come from a do-it-yourself background and bring an anti-Hollywood aesthetic to their exploration of female friendship and young people in New York trying to build creative careers; and both are, by the entertainment industry’s narrow definition of prettiness, big-boned exotics. But while Frances is gentle and self-effacing, Hannah is brazen and theatrically masochistic. Hannah, who aspires to be a writer, sees her youth as a commercially viable product. She does drugs not for fun but because it gets her a paid writing gig; her process of self-discovery is indistinguishable from her process of building a career.

At times, Dunham’s Hannah can seem painfully unaware of her privilege, treating minor financial or personal setbacks as if a tectonic plate has moved asunder. (“I don’t really think that you guys are understanding the severity of this situation,” Hannah tells her parents when they ask her to join them in celebrating their 30th anniversary and she wants to go on a date with a pharmacist she just met. “I have been dating someone who treats my heart like it’s monkey meat. I feel like a delusional, invisible person half the time. So I have to learn what it’s like to be treated well before it’s too late for me.”)

But Hannah’s anxiety fits our precarious time: Though she was raised in a comfortably middle-class household, she’s coming of age at a moment when being rich seems like the only alternative to being poor. As the show goes on, Hannah’s anxiety has evolved from a shtick into a disabling obsessive-compulsive disorder; and generational anxiety has become a central theme, with characters contending with alcoholism and chronic underemployment. Hannah is desperate for success because the gap between victory and failure seems to be growing wider; she demands attention because its opposite, utter invisibility, terrifies her.

Frances, meanwhile, is an expert in acting as if everything is fine. When she breaks up with her boyfriend or loses her job or feels spurned by Sophie, she drinks a little too much and goes home. Frances’s perception of being young—and this film’s, too—feels formed in a bygone era, when youth was meant to be squandered and ambition was something to hide. Frances is not especially opinionated—she’s not one to boast that her approach to life is superior—but she has an idealized notion of the artist as a noble outsider. Much of the time, it seems she’s reacting to the same fears that Hannah faces by denying them.

To this otherwise light and fleeting film, Gerwig brings an emotional depth, making Frances seem like she’s smiling on the brink of collapse. In recent years, after her mumblecore launch, Gerwig had been exploring characters for whom failure seemed so inevitable that it might be easier not to try. In Greenberg (2010), also directed by Baumbach, she plays Florence, a babysitter in L.A. who wants to improve her station in life but is in no particular rush. “I’ve been out of college as long as I was in, and no one cares whether or not I wake up in the morning,” Florence says, observing, not complaining. (Gerwig supposedly said this to Baumbach the first time they met.)

Gerwig has also excelled when she’s allowed to be strange—not just goofy but bizarre. In Whit Stillman’s quirky musical Damsels in Distress (2011), about a group of college-aged women who treat their own depression by attempting to help even sadder classmates, she plays a girl with odd coping strategies, like inventing a dance she hopes will become an international craze. In Alison Bagnall’s The Dish & the Spoon (2011), she plays Rose, a young woman who, after finding out that her husband has cheated on her, takes up with a homeless teenage boy. Rose and the boy share an innocent romance during a blistery winter week. But she has violent urges that she never sees through. Deciding whether to return to her husband, she tests how she might live without him, uncertainly performing a vicious version of herself.

Frances Ha isn’t Gerwig’s dancing debut. She’s danced in several earlier films, often without a partner. Gerwig, who studied ballet for many years, turns her solos into moments of reluctant self-acceptance. In The Dish & the Spoon, on the stage of an abandoned auditorium, she begins with an arm-flailing tap dance and then, after taking off her socks and shoes, slides, spins, and bounds across the stage, which seems almost too small to contain her.

 

The casual unfolding of Gerwig’s career makes her success seem like a whimsical accident, a myth different from the one surrounding the slightly younger, famously driven Dunham, who was scheduling meetings with HBO before most people buy a couch. It’s not quite that: At Barnard, where Gerwig studied English and philosophy, she co-founded an improv group and wrote plays. When she was a junior, she went to Cinema Village and saw Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, considered by many to be the first mumblecore film. She went back to see it the next three nights. She met Joe Swanberg through friends during a trip to Chicago, and they decided to collaborate. Yet a few years ago, she was still working as an SAT tutor, and in interviews, not wanting to seem opportunistic, she says things like, “I don’t force a lot of decisions on my life” and “I’m pretty happy with whatever occurs.”

On the surface, the trajectory of Gerwig’s career recalls that of Diane Keaton, who became famous for her collaborations with boyfriend Woody Allen. Keaton went on to star in movies directed by Warren Beatty, whom she also dated—her ambitions often seeming catalyzed by the grander purpose of supporting the ambitions of someone she loved. In her early career, Keaton, like Gerwig, had a tendency to play unintimidating characters whose charm rested not in their wit but in their acknowledgment of how witless they were. But Keaton’s characters, belonging to an earlier generation, seemed to expect that a man would eventually show up. Gerwig’s don’t. Frances has little faith in romantic love—she’s not sure if it’s even something worth pursuing.

Being “relatable” has always been a useful trait for performers. But in our era, those famous for appearing familiar give fodder to a distinctly contemporary fantasy: that anyone with a platform—a Twitter account, say—might be able to make a living by being herself. Gerwig, according to The New York Times’ T magazine, has become “the go-to actress for offbeat, likeable female roles.” Gerwig’s likability is a product of her quiet ambitions, self-deprecating humor, and comfort in being an outsider. Our era has also popularized a narrative about the enterprising outsider—we admire bloggers and venture capitalists and start-up founders, people who have taken some aspect of the fragmentary nature of the way we live and made it profitable. Most of Gerwig’s characters, like Frances, are too humble to brand themselves; unlike Hannah they choose to own their invisibility. Gerwig is both an embodiment of the Internet generation and a rebel against its competitive ethos.

In Frances Ha, Frances choreographs a piece that begins with a crowd of dancers moving independently and ends with them walking in sync but still immune to each other’s presence—their loneliness like an uncanny precondition they can’t ever address. There’s an intoxicating frivolity to Frances Ha, with its musical sequences and city montages, its joyous disregard for the crueler aspects of young adulthood today in favor of a platonic idea of youth. The film borrows back in time from the communal insouciance of 1960s hippies and 1990s slackers. It’s Gerwig, with her palpable sense of precariousness, who grounds it in contemporary life. Frances isn’t a hippie or a slacker, and she’s not in a relationship; it’s not clear where she belongs. Even as the movie gestures toward a pat happy ending, it treats isolation as a truth one can either resist or embrace.

Frances, in her endearing pragmatism, chooses the latter. At one point in the movie, she sprints and bounces through downtown Manhattan with David Bowie’s “Modern Love” playing in the background. No love is more modern than that toward oneself.

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