The second collaboration between writer-director Daryl Wein and co-writer Zoe Lister-Jones (2010's little-seen "Breaking Upwards"), "Lola Versus" plays like a studio-produced romantic comedy as made by people who genuinely care about and are invested in their flawed but kind-hearted protagonist. "I'm slutty, but I am a good person!" 29-year-old Lola (Greta Gerwig) says with exasperation at one point, taking responsibility for her actions even as she doesn't quite recognize the person she's become. Her downslide into self-destructive behavior is understandable considering she's been floundering ever since her long-time boyfriend and fiance, Luke (Joel Kinnaman)a guy she assumed was as in love with her as she was with himabruptly called off their wedding. Suddenly left without a home and the person she thought was her soul mate, NYC-based Lola must scramble to find a tiny new place to stay, get extra funds for school (Luke had been the one to convince her to go back for her PhD), and make it through her dissertation (about the use of silence in poetry and literature, and the seeming fear of it in the real world).
As her parents Lenny (Bill Pullman) and Robin (Debra Winger) lend a supportive ear, but don't always seem to understand what she's going through, Lola finds it immensely difficult being single. Suddenly, best friend Henry (Hamish Linklater) is looking mighty desirable to her, but is this attraction coming from a real place or out of desperation because she doesn't want to be alone? Then there's the very weird, decidedly off-putting Nick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), whom she meets in the deli line and hates herself for calling afterwards to set up a date. When Luke comes back into her life, wanting a second chance, is it one that she should give him, or has the damage already been done? After all, there must have been a good reason why he so swiftly broke off their engagement.
At first glance, "Lola Versus" might seem like it is going to be another one of those overly conventional, even insulting, stories about a young woman nearing thirty who feels as if she needs a man to complete her. This is what so many romantic comedies of today are built upon, feminism be damned. And, for a time, even Lola herself buys into this false belief. She is heartbroken when her significant other leaves hera completely dignified responseand has been part of a couple for so long that she scarcely remembers what it's like being by herself, so to speak. Lola gets support from not only Luke, but also her acerbic, insecure stage actress gal pal Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones), but her internal struggles she must figure out on her own. In following Lola so closely, never wavering, director Daryl Wein turns the film into an observant and touching character study. She makes plenty of mistakes on her way toward self-discovery, acting upon impulses and potentially hurting others as a result, but none of this comes from a malicious place. Indeed, when she says near the end, "To love yourself you have to learn to love other people," it rings true. By realizing that those around her are as important as she is, she stops feeling sorry for herself and finally sees the beauty in what she does have. Only through this is she able to move forward to a future that is still up in the air, but all the more exciting because of it.
Time and again it's been said, but it warrants repeating: Greta Gerwig (2012's "Damsels in Distress
") is one of the freshest, most disarming actors of her generation, a gifted, intuitive performer with special qualities that almost cannot be put into words. Beginning in low-budget mumblecore pictures such as 2008's "Baghead
," she broke through in a big way with her standout turn in 2010's "Greenberg
," a film that she was the best thing about. From there she's brightened up a would-be thankless supporting role in 2011's "No Strings Attached
," was promoted to central love-interest status in 2011's "Arthur
," and now, at last, has a major motion picture that rests solely on her shoulders. Watching Gerwig, it is impossible to take one's eyes off her. She does not outwardly act, but is so natural and honest that it feels like she's living her roles as they play out. She's very pretty, but also quirky and intelligent in a way that few performers in her age range can pull off with quite the same flair and believability. It helps, of course, that Gerwig has largely picked good scripts. When they're not, as with the otherwise forgettable "Arthur
" remake, well, she's gifted enough to overcome that, too. Portraying Lola, it is as if the part has been written for her. Whether this is true or not is unknown, but Gerwig makes her so watchable, so sympathetic, and so distinct that she's nothing less than a fully-formed, hard-to-forget screen heroine. The rest of the cast do their due diligence, with Zoe Lister-Jones (2010's "The Other Guys
") a particularly delightful force to be reckoned with as Alice, but this is Gerwig's picture all the way.
Any movie that finds a way to name-drop and philosophize about not only the central female characters from "Beverly Hills, 90210," but Emily Valentine, too, can't be all bad. Luckily, "Lola Versus" allows such a theory to hold water. Dreamily shot on location in New York City by cinematographer Jakob Ihre and lushly drifting along to the quixotic sounds of composer and soundtrack contributor Fall on Your Sword, the film takes few wrong steps even if its straightforward narrative is not exactly ever reinventing the laws of cinema. With that said, "Lola Versus" does make a name for itself by not boiling down to which male suitor Lola picks to be with. In a twist that would make "Twilight
" fans either weep or come to their long-overdue senses, Lola earns every right to choose herself. For now, and for as long as she pleases, she's enough.