Greta Gerwig, who emerged from the “mumblecore” scene, has made three great films with Noah Baumbach that’s given herself a calling card of wit, infectious over-confidence and warm companionship. She co-wrote two of those films with Baumbauch, the equally charming Frances Ha and Mistress America. But 2016 was a pivotal year for the actress in stepping out of that partnership to work with other emerging auteurs. Last year, Gerwig had a small but important role in Pablo Larrain‘s Jackie, as Jackie Kennedy’s assistant and friendly companion. But her turn in Mike Mills‘ 20th Century Women is revelatory for the actress.
In 20th Century Women she plays Abbie, a punk rocker when punk rock was ending in the UK but just starting in Southern California, in 1979 Santa Barbara. She’s also a photographer. But where Gerwig reaches new dramatic highs is from Abbie’s battle with cervical cancer which has left her barren at an age where childbearing would start to enter her life thoughts. As you can gather from the title of the film, Mills’ (Beginners) new film is about women, but specifically it’s about how many essays and pop culture moments talk about women sharing a collective experience, 20th Century Women is about the distinct differences between individual women in generational thought, emotional allowances and whether motherhood defines their being. The story itself is simple. A single mother (Annette Bening) asks two younger women (Gerwig and Elle Fanning) to help raise her son (Lucas Jade Zumann). The results are touching, intensely human and perfect for the moment.
For Gerwig, it’s understandable why she’s appealed to young directors. She has a DIY spark. In 20th Century Women she maintains that but she also fully blossoms into a complete actress, outside the comfort of her own scripts. It’s one of the best supporting performances of the year. And back in December, I got the chance to talk to her about the music in the film, how the cast chose songs as ice-breakers and her repetition of the word “menstruation” for a scene that took hours to shoot.