Little Women 2019 *****

greta-gerwig-little-womenGreta Gerwig is a talented woman in a field where women are rarely listened to or valued, but she’s earned her place at the front rank of Hollywood creatives. Louisa May Alcott’s venerable property is one which Sony have been keen to develop for a while, and with Gerwig as writer/director, the resulting rich slice of period drama is something of a triumph for all concerned. For Gerwig, it proves beyond any doubt that her directorial debut, Lady Bird, was no fluke; for Amy Pascal and Sony, it’s a strong return on their faith in a fresh and radical female director, handling a big-name cast and a lush studio production. And for audiences, it’s a chance to return to a classic, often filmed text, and find something new and exciting through the eyes of a genuine auteur.

The bildungsroman is an ideal target for a 2019 do-over; today’s youth chronicle their coming of age in lugubrious detail, so it’s something of a breath of fresh air to find Alcott’s character brought to life with such brief but incisive strokes. Gerwig puts Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and her development centre-stage, opening with the author nervously awaiting the opinion of a publisher of her early work. His understanding, that a story about a woman must end with her either married, or dead, is one that Jo wants to question, but she’s also savvy and prepared to negotiate, on art, on commerce, on all terms. The question is, how did she get so smart?

From here, the narrative fractures, as we travel back seven years to see the formative experiences which have inspired Jo’s work, namely her sisters Margaret (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Elizabeth (Eliza Scanlen), and also remain in the present to get acquainted with how things work out for the sisters. There is an eccentric aunt (Meryl Streep, giving it some Maggie Smith in the dowager stakes), and a handsome suitor Laurie (the more-than-personable Timothy Chalamet), while the stern but loving hand of mother Marmee (Laura Dern) is there to steady the ship when the girls’ youthful enthusiasm threatens to put things out of kilter. The way the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time may dissuade those have come just for the classic text and chocolate-box visuals, but it revitalises the narrative in a satisfying way, and makes familiar events more surprising as they play out. As a director, Gerwig plays down the potential for sentiment, while retaining the caustic wit of her script work on Lady Bird and Frances Ha; these Little Women feel like real people, with Ronan’s sparring with Pugh a particular highlight.

Little Women is an unexpected delight, a period film that feels relevant, a woman’s picture that should have a universal appeal. It’s easy to cheer Jo as she rises above her difficulties, and Gerwig is always firmly plugged into her heroine’s psyche. The ending, while clever, is unashamedly romantic; Gerwig’s sumptuous film shows a modern audience that feminism and romance can fit together nicely.

Frances Ha 2012 ****

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Greta Gerwig’s collaborations with Noah Baumbach include Mistress America and Frances Ha; returning to these films after her Oscar-nominated turn in Lady Bird, it’s obvious that Gerwig brought as much, if not more, to the table as her writing partner. Frances Ha is a slight but satisfying character study of a talented young woman struggling to make her way in NYC, lovingly caught in black and white. She’s not quite a dancer, not quite a friend, and not quite sure of where she’s going; Baumbach’s film is set just at the moment when harsh realities begin to bite on youthful aspirations. There’s some amusing diversions, including a trip to Paris where jet lag scuppers Frances’s aspirations to see the city. The title is explained in a throw-away final scene where Frances attempts to force a slip of paper bearing her name onto her mailbox, obscuring most of it; Frances Ha is a film about fitting into society, and as Gerwig dances down the street to propulsive beat of David Bowie’s Modern Love, resourcefully captures the tremulous feelings of youth.

Mistress America 2014 ***

mistress_america_stillWriter/director Noah Baumbach’s output is inconsistent, but at his best, he’s got an eye of character that makes him a unique talent. Working with star Greta Gerwig, who gets a co-writer credit, Baumbach manages to provide a strong companion piece to his similarly offbeat Frances Ha. Tracy (Lola Kirke) falls under the influence of Manhattan socialite Brooke (Gerwig), who has big ideas and a entrepreneurial flair. But it soon transpires that Brooke is anything but the success she appears, and Tracy’s acceptance of that gets Mistress America off on the right foot. It’s almost like The Great Gatsby if Gatsby’s businesses had failed; Brooke is an anti-heroine who is completely wrapped up in herself, and her relationship with Tracy is all the most interesting because the film dares to look at apparently rational people who are slightly deluded about who they are and what they can achieve. It may not be the American dream, but it’s a reality that is universally recognizable. The climax may be theatrical, and the music choices are retro in a way that doesn’t quite fit the narrative, but Mistress America is a snapshot of 2015 that pulls no punches in terms of how millennials can present their lives as constant success despite encroaching failure.

The House of the Devil 2009 ***

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An early work from writer/director Ty West, The House of the Devil is an accomplished tribute to early 80’s horror movies. The set-up is foreboding; Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) gets a babysitting job at a remote and scary looking house; she travels out with her pal Megan (Greta Gerwig), but finds no baby; instead Mrs and Mars Ulman (genre favourites Tom Noonan and Mary Wonorov) offer her four hundred dollars to stay in the house overnight. The true nature of the deception involves a satanic ritual, and Greta Gerwig’s character is one of the first to find herself in trouble. West clearly loves this kind of film, finding room for Dee Wallace (The Howling) as well as lots of deliberately dated film grammar, including some Mario Bava-type zooms. Lena Dunham provides the voice of the 911 operator.

Damsels in Distress 2011 ***

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The rising star of Greta Gerwig, mumblecore queen rising to the heights of Francis Ha, is the main attraction in Whit Stillman’s deft comedy-musical. Stillman scored a notable trilogy with metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, mixing chatty dialogue, offbeat characters and austere pop culture savviness; a tasteful Tarantino, working outside the mainstream. Gerwig plays Violet, one of three girls who set out to challenge their male-dominated campus, and also invent a new dance craze at the same time. It’s fluff, but with an underlying warmth for its charmingly verbose characters that makes for a strikingly original comedy.