If you’ve seen an American indie film in the last 10 years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Greta Gerwig.
Whether mumbling her way through a Joe Swanberg movie or carrying the comic burden of films like Frances Ha or Mistress America, Gerwig keeps busy. Let’s take a look at six of her best films, all currently streaming online (and, although I did not intend this, all currently streaming on Amazon and Amazon alone).
Title: Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)
What it is: Gerwig got her start in the mid-aughts with the burgeoning “mumblecore” movement: really cheap, DIY movies about young white hipsters engaging in naturalistic dialogue. Hannah Takes the Stairs is Gerwig’s second movie with director (and actor) Joe Swanberg and her first film as co-screenwriter. Gerwig plays Hannah, a recent college graduate pursuing a romance with two screenwriters in Chicago (most of the characters in mumblecore films tend to be mumblecore filmmakers).
Now, movies like this are something of an acquired taste (low on incident, high on talking), but such is Gerwig’s charm and charisma that she can sell them to a broader audience than might otherwise have been attracted to just Joe Swanberg and his bros. As Gerwig and the mumblecore movement grew together, their subject matter became progressively richer, which brings us to our next film…
Title: Baghead (2008)
What it is: Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass (the latter of whom appeared in Hannah Takes the Stairs), Baghead finds Gerwig and co. mumbling their way into genre territory.
A group of young movie people, frustrated by their lack of success, head to a cabin in the woods to write a screenplay. They want to make a horror movie, and they want its central conceit to be cheap but effective, which leads them to this premise: people with paper bags over their heads (which is scarier than it might sound at first; think of movies like The Strangers (2008) where most of the horror boils down to “Oh shit, we can’t see their faces…”).
As our heroes begin work on their screenplay, strange and sinister things begin to happen: Are they merely scaring the bejesus out of each other? Or has their story taken on a life of its own? The film delicately straddles the fence between humor and fear, and features Gerwig as a key contributor to an ensemble cast.
Title: The House of the Devil (2009)
What it is: In this slow burning throwback to the synth-scored horror of the '80s, college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is struggling to pay her rent. She is delighted, then, to take on a babysitting job so dubious that the only explanation for her taking it is that she has never seen a horror movie and wouldn’t understand the basic concepts underlying them if she did: a weird couple want her to look after the husband’s unseen mother while they attend a witches’ Sabbath to view a lunar eclipse.
Now, Samantha’s best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig!) has evidently seen a few horror movies in her day, because she understands immediately that something is off here and tries to dissuade Samantha from taking the job. But the money is too tempting, and Megan must content herself with promising to check in on Samantha during the night. In horror movies, there is a balance to be struck between build-up and pay-off and, without giving away any plot details, we can say that The House of the Devil is almost all build-up, followed by some of the most bat-shit crazy pay-off you’re ever likely to see.
Also, a pre-fame Lena Dunham has an off-screen cameo as a 911 dispatcher, so there’s that to look out for too.
Title: Damsels in Distress (2012)
What it is: Greta Gerwig plays Violet, leader of the suicide prevention center at a peculiar college where the men are all idiots and the fraternities are Roman (as in “DU” rather than “ΦΒΣ”). Violet and her floral friends (Lily, Heather, Rose) seem to have it all, but their lives begin to unravel when their idiot boyfriends break up with them, fall prey to the excesses of Roman life, and/or convert to Catharism.
Violet is nothing if not resilient, and the school year will find her fighting the scourge of suicide, emerging from her own depression (or “tailspin”, as she prefers to call it), and making her mark in the manner of all of history’s greats: by starting a dance craze. This was director Whit Stillman’s first film in 13 years, and features the deadpan humor (what is the plural of doofus? doofi?) with which he made his name in dry '90s comedies like Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998).
Title: Frances Ha (2013)
What it is: Frances Ha is to Greta Gerwig what Annie Hall was to Diane Keaton: a witty and richly realized character study which mushrooms into a signature role.
Gerwig is Frances Halliday, an aspiring Isadora Duncan in a black-and-white New York who finds that it’s very hard to make it (fame, money, what-have-you) as an art dancer in Brooklyn. And she has to do this while keeping up a brave face for her ostensible friends, with whom she is nonetheless competing to see who can be the most successful adult. It’s a situation we’ve all found ourselves in (if we’re reasonably affluent and well-educated; Frances went to Vassar).
This is Gerwig’s second film with director Noah Baumbach (after Greenberg (2010) and before Mistress America (2015)) and they co-wrote it together. While it comes perilously close to being twee, Frances accumulates enough frustration and failure to keep it authentic. It is likely Gerwig and Baumbach’s strongest outing.
Title: Maggie’s Plan (2016)
What it is: By 2016, Greta Gerwig was big enough that she could star alongside A-list stars (or, A-list-ish, anyway), in this case, Julianne Moore and Ethan Hawke. Gerwig plays Maggie, an artist with a university job who decides she wants to have a baby. To this end, she enlists extremely sketchy friend Guy to be her sperm donor, just as she’s becoming close to married academic John (Ethan Hawke).
Now, as no cinematic depiction of artificial insemination ever goes quite according to plan, Maggie finds herself hooking up with John just as she’s maybe been impregnated with Guy’s sperm. Fast-forward three years and Maggie has a child, and the child has a father, but determining who he is while navigating her relationships with John and Guy (and John’s family, including ex-wife Georgette, played by a scene-stealing Julianne Moore) will prove far more complicated than she could ever have imagined.