The actor Greta Gerwig has consistently pushed her way into public consciousness for the past decade, in indie favourites like Frances Ha, Maggie's Plan and 20th Century Women, and a handful of Hollywood things like Jackie, Greenberg and The Mindy Project. Her style is disarmingly naturalistic, appearing to lack all form, but displaying and evoking all depth of emotion. She's the most real human being working onscreen.
But Gerwig isn't in Lady Bird, the terrific family drama she's written and that's being pitched as her directorial debut, which is not technically true—in 2008 she and Joe Swanberg helmed the relationship piece Nights and Weekends, during a time when Gerwig was part of a collective of filmmakers making microbudget comedy-dramas, resulting in a passel of talky, scrappy films including Funny Ha Ha, The Puffy Chair, Baghead and Hannah Takes the Stairs. (Gerwig is the mainstream star of this mumblecore era; the brothers Mark and Jay Duplass have also done well.)
"I feel like I've spent the last 10 years really learning the craft of filmmaking," says Gerwig from Los Angeles, where she's just learned Lady Bird had the biggest limited box-office opening of 2017. "I was lucky enough to be able to do that as a co-writer, and a producer, and as an actor on a lot of different sets. And working with a lot of different kinds of directors and film artists." She ticks off some names: Noah Baumbach, Rebecca Miller, Miranda July, Wes Anderson, Lena Dunham. "It's a pretty fancy group."
In Gerwig's latest directorial effort, Saoirse Ronan stars as Christine, a high school senior who has demanded everyone start calling her Lady Bird, in her final year at home in Sacramento, northern California. We see her join the school musical, burn through a couple boyfriends, fret about college and fight with her parents (Laurie Metcalf—"all of the art, none of the bullshit," notes Gerwig—and Tracy Letts). "I've always seen it as one person's coming-of-age is another person's letting-go," says Gerwig.
The director isn't down with the "autobiographical" label Lady Bird has been tagged with—it's more than that. "I was not like Lady Bird—I didn't make anyone call me by a different name, I wasn't really outspoken in that way, I was more of a rule-follower and a people-pleaser," says Gerwig. "I think I was exploring something I didn't have access to. The character of Lady Bird, it feels like a thing Saoirse and I made together."
Lady Bird opens Friday, November 17.