Last fall, Barry Jenkins was a little-known filmmaker with one feature under his belt, 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy.” Then he premiered future best picture winner “Moonlight” at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival and everything changed. At the 2017 edition, he returned the favor, not only introducing a series of short film programs at the festival as he has for years, but also by presenting another rising filmmaker to the world.
Just a few hours after receiving a standing ovation for one of his short film programs, Jenkins took the stage at the Chuck Jones Cinema for the world premiere of “Lady Bird,” the coming-of-age comedy that marks the solo directorial debut of veteran actress Greta Gerwig. There was a practical connection between “Lady Bird” and “Moonlight,” in that both movies share A24 as a distributor. However, as he explained in his charming “Lady Bird” introduction, Jenkins’ connection to Gerwig has deeper roots than that.
A decade ago, Gerwig was a ubiquitous young actress appearing in a range of microbudget features, from Joe Swanberg’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs” to the Duplass brothers’ “Baghead.” Her face had become synonymous with the genre of scrappy, meandering stories about young people figuring out their lives dubbed “mumblecore” (that term may have dubious value today, but unquestionably elevated several filmmakers’ profiles at the time). At the same time that Gerwig’s career was taking off, Jenkins was on the festival circuit with “Medicine for Melancholy” — which some had also characterized as mumblecore — alongside many other young filmmakers, such as Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, and Aaron Katz.
As Jenkins explained to the crowd, he was traveling the festival circuit in 2008 with Katz, who had recently directed the low-budget romance “Quiet City,” when the pair found themselves at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival in Argentina. Jenkins had not met Gerwig at the time, but their paths were about to cross.
“Man, I was broke,” Jenkins said, noting by contrast that Gerwig “had starred in all these films they were calling mumblecore, so she was like the queen of Mar del Plata. I’d seen her in all these movies.” When he spotted her at the festival, he introduced himself. “I was like, how do you look so good?” he said. “She was like, ‘I just had this dinner and that dinner.’ Aaron and I were like, ‘Well, we’re hungry and broke.’
“So Greta goes, ‘Well, because I’m on this special jury they gave me all these pesos.’ She opens up her purse and she has all these pesos. She’s like, ‘C’mon, let’s go eat.’ She took us around Mar de Plata to spend all her pesos giving us wine and food.”
At that point, Jenkins added, “I’ve always known Greta as an actress extraordinaire, but please, give a warm welcome to writer-director, writer-director, writer-director Greta Gerwig.” The crowd went wild for Gerwig’s tearful introduction. “This might be the first time a filmmaker has started crying for the screening,” Gerwig said.
“Lady Bird,” which stars Saoirse Ronan in a semi-biographical tale about an alienated teen growing up in 2002-era Sacramento, played to rave reviews and strong audience reactions; it next screens at TIFF and NYFF. A24 will release the film November 10.