Love and Attention: The Films of Greta Gerwig

In a scene near the beginning of Lady Bird, the heroine argues with her mother on the drive home from visiting colleges. Frustrated by the mundanity of life in 2002 Sacramento, she protests, “I wish I could live through something.” The mother, irritated, replies, “Aren’t you?” The conversation swiftly devolves, ending with Lady Bird throwing herself out of the moving car in dramatic frustration. But the question remains: what qualifies as “living through something”? What makes an experience important, a story worth telling? In Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019), writer and director Greta Gerwig unapologetically depicts the everyday and the domestic, with particular attention to the experiences of young women. She elevates ordinary life in all its imperfection, and through her dialogue, she posits a philosophy of art: ordinary lives are full and worthy of attention. In creating these films, Gerwig draws out richness and complexity where it has always been, but where we often forget to look.

The ordinary life Gerwig creates is rich and layered, with an attention to time that drives the narrative forward. In Lady Bird, a film based on her own life, she tells the coming-of-age story of a girl who feels stifled in Catholic school. In an early sequence, she alternates moments of school life with mass, creating the sense of liturgical rhythm as a heartbeat for the passage of time that recurs throughout the film. It imbues the narrative with a sense of steady movement: as she finds highs and lows, the church calendar marches on, echoed by school milestones and secular holidays. Likewise, Gerwig frames the adults in the film as people with inner lives no less rich than Lady Bird (Saiorse Ronan) herself. The heroine and her mother fight frequently, but also mirror one another, both deeply flawed and deeply caring. The school’s faculty are people dedicated to their faith and their students, complex in their own right. The priest who teaches drama must take a leave of absence because of severe depression and worries that it will affect the way his students see him. A nun, Sister Sarah-Joan, encourages Lady Bird to join drama as a constructive channel for her “performative streak.” When Lady Bird decorates the “nun-mobile,” an old minivan, with streamers, cans, and a sign that reads “Just Married to Jesus”, Sister Sarah-Joan doesn’t give a punishment, but rather adjusts the timeline, saying it’s been 25 years.

As with all adults and authority figures in the film, these characters serve as foils to the teenage girl’s rambunctious attitude, her utter unwillingness to be tamed. But through glimpses into each individual’s pain and humor, Gerwig reminds the audience that the characters who populate everyday life face just as much hardship and possess just as much depth of feeling as the protagonist. As Lady Bird comes to the end of her senior year, she grows closer to becoming one of them.

Little Women likewise uses relationships between characters to emphasize a strong sense of time, which in turn pulls the plot forward. Here, it is Gerwig’s method of overlaying the first half of the story with the second, creating a visual contrast between the soft glow of childhood and the cool lens of adult realism. The characters, then, appear in relationship with one another, but also with their past selves, as they must come to terms with the realities of their adult world. The split narrative likewise allows for a split ending, highlighting the gap between Louisa May Alcott’s intentions for the story, as she explained them in her letters, and the novel itself.

The setting is an ironic echo of Lady Bird’s initial argument with her mother: the Sacramento teenager wants to go to New York, or at least one of those New England states “where writers live in the woods.” Jo March spends the movie alternatively as a New York professional or a writer living in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts. Yet the March sisters often feel keenly their distance from the action—their father fights on the other side of the country, and they can do little about it besides make unglamorous sacrifices, like a Christmas without presents. The center of their universe is a house where little happens, and their own dramas—arguments between sisters and adolescent soul-searching—echo many of Lady Bird’s experiences, even as the March sisters’ lives reflect the constraints of their time.

Jo March, like Lady Bird, is rebellious, though in more controlled and directed ways. Jo does not need to skip class or secretly apply to a college her mother wouldn’t approve of to assert her independence. Her strong-willed, boyish personality in girlhood and her drive for a career in adulthood both mark her as revolutionary, ahead of her time. Though she occupies a central place, both as Alcott’s reflection and as Gerwig’s storyteller, her sisters balance the narrative, with different visions of femininity expressed through different personalities. Meg is motherly and nurturing, happy to marry young and have a family; Amy is as ambitious as Jo, but also sophisticated and graceful; Beth is quiet and often meek, but resolute in character where she perceives right and wrong. In their younger years, each character must learn to overcome her lesser tendencies: Meg’s vanity, Jo’s anger, Amy’s selfishness, and Beth’s shyness.

With the passage of time, their stories and their struggles become more complex and painful. These lives become more like something one would write stories about, yet there is a deep sense of loss in their empty attic. There, in one of the film’s most poignant moments, Jo declares,

Women have minds and souls as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition and talent as well as just beauty. And I’m sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But—I’m so lonely! 

Jo’s great personal reckoning with herself comes in that same attic where she used to play with her sisters, while she argues with her mother. Even the most independent, insistently self-sufficient sister feels deep loneliness, and she must confront this feeling not in the strange and challenging world of New York City, but in the quiet isolation of her hometown. The moments of greatest sadness in Little Women all happen under the roof of that same house.

Gerwig does not minimize, but rather validates the tragedies of the everyday, great and small. In the middle of a breakup scene in Lady Bird, the heroine expresses disappointment that her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend misled her, and he begins citing statistics of war in the Middle East. She bites back, “Other things can be sad, too!” In Little Women, even as the Civil War rages on and her father is in the hospital hundreds of miles away, Jo March cries over a bad haircut. Other things can be sad, too.

That these girls can struggle through and survive the upending of their lives but weep over small things; that they can push for independence but also struggle with loneliness and isolation; that Jo can sell her hair to buy her mother a necessary train ticket but still cry over its loss, is life with all its contradictions. The characters are paradoxes of love and prickliness, intelligence and strong sensibilities, because real women, real people, are themselves paradoxes. Their relationships, then, are equally complex: Lady Bird fights with her family and her friends, pushing her mother away and begging her to come back, struggling to define herself through her friendships. The March sisters frequently cannot understand each other’s choices and motivations, struggling to comprehend how those they love and know better than anything else in the world can be so radically different. Yet they continue to come together and to learn from one another.

When Jo talks to her sisters about writing, she doubts whether anyone could see their story as important. Amy replies, “Maybe we don’t see those things as important because people don’t write about them.” Jo disagrees: “No, writing doesn’t confer importance, it reflects it.” Amy presses on, arguing, “I’m not sure. Perhaps writing will make them more important.” For Jo, as for Louisa May Alcott, this idea proves true: both the fictional character and her original author become successful through a novel about their families. But this argument speaks more to Gerwig’s filmmaking philosophy as well: the lives that we lead are no less worthy of depiction for being ordinary. Art, instead, elevates the overlooked so that the world may better appreciate it.

In a conversation with Sister Sarah-Joan near the end of the film, Lady Bird comes to a greater appreciation of her own story. Sister Sarah-Joan tells the student that her college essays address Sacramento “so affectionately, and with such care.” Lady Bird admits, “Sure, I guess I pay attention.” The sister asks, “Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” Lady Bird does not know she loves Sacramento, but her thoughtful, attentive writing has drawn out the beauty in it, showing others the affection she has yet to discover in herself. Creating something—whether that be a college essay, a novel, or a film—becomes an expression of love through faithful rendering.

In the last scene of Lady Bird, the heroine, who now calls herself Christine, wanders home from the hospital the morning after a wild New York college party. Mascara still streaked across her face, she discovers it’s Sunday and enters a church, listening to the choir sing. Afterwards, outside, she calls her parents, leaving a voicemail where she thanks them. She reminisces to her mother about what it’s like to drive in Sacramento, and images of Lady Bird and her mother driving flash across the screen. That memory brings the story full circle, as Christine verbally accepts her given name and puts herself back in the car with her mother. She has gone to “New York, where culture is,” but she has come to see the beauty of life in her hometown. This is the heart of Greta Gerwig’s films: a profound appreciation of and love for the everyday, the knowledge that we are, indeed, living through something worth telling.

Mary Kate Boyle is a senior studying English and French.