In 2015’s Mistress America, Greta Gerwig is mid-monologue when she hits a line that sinks its hooks into the viewer and refuses to let go. “I just am in love with everything,” she says. “But I can’t figure out how to make myself work in the world.”
If that sentiment feels familiar, maybe it’s because it feels adjacent to many of the themes running through Greta Gerwig’s box office summer smash, Barbie, where our hero worries that she’s not good enough for anything. Or perhaps it recalls Little Women (2019)’s Jo in the attic, full of confidence and determination that coexist with her crippling fear that her success in the world will doom her to a life of loneliness.
While not directed by Gerwig, Mistress America was co-written by the actress-turned-director (with real-life partner Noah Baumbach). The same goes for 2012’s Frances Ha, a meditative and sneakily hysterical black-and-white picture that centers on a flighty, unreliable protagonist in her 20s. “I’m so embarrassed,” Greta as Frances confesses at one point. “I’m not a real person yet.”
Whether in work she’s written and acted in, or her three killer solo directorial efforts (Lady Bird, Little Women, and Barbie), that’s what it all often boils down to for Gerwig. She’s so empathetic to women in the midst of change, whether it be Lady Bird’s senior year of high school or a plastic doll’s existential crisis about her purpose and place in the world (or between worlds).
As her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird put Gerwig’s essential perspective front and center — compare it to some of the other Best Picture nominees at the 2018 Academy Awards, like Dunkirk, The Darkest Hour, or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and it feels like an outlier in all the best ways.
While anchored in Gerwig’s point of view, Lady Bird hinges on Saoirse Ronan‘s performance in the titular role, a high-wire acting turn that approached the hell of being a teenage girl with patience and understanding. Yes, Lady Bird herself is a bit of a nightmare; she gets herself suspended from school, and can’t help but argue with her mother even in the most tender moments. She lies to her boyfriend to try and seem cooler. Somehow, though, the script manages not to condemn her, or even look down on her, for her many mistakes — there’s a refreshing frankness to the way Lady Bird’s story is told, a warmth and closeness that makes her character feel tangible and horribly relatable.