Rebecca Miller, the writer and director of “Maggie’s Plan” seems to have a sixth sense for knowing just what her audience might like. If you’re interested in a dramedy starring Greta Gerwig about a young, single woman looking to become a mother, chances are the cameo from riot grrl Kathleen Hanna will delight you (Hanna’s husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, is the music supervisor). Miller’s film isn’t trying to be all things to all people, it’s just trying to be the right thing for specific people.
Based on a story by Karen Rinaldi, “Maggie’s Plan” is much more than just a film about a woman considering single motherhood. It’s about the inertia of events after choices are made, about trying to put a spoke in the wheel of fate, which might only momentarily derail what is destined. Maggie (Gerwig) is a meddler, and her plans don’t always go off without a hitch.
Maggie is planning to become become pregnant via a sperm donor, “borrowing the genes” of acquaintance Guy (Travis Fimmel), an artisanal pickle entrepreneur. She wants to make the choice while she still has options. But while that plot is in motion, she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a disgruntled ficto-critical anthropologist in a difficult marriage to fellow academic Georgette (Julianne Moore). When John and Maggie meet, at work at the New School, she encourages him to pursue his dream of writing a novel, and soon, an affair, baby, divorce and marriage in the mix.
Both Maggie and Georgette are highly aware of the socially ascribed roles of the scorned woman and the other woman, and in their resistance to these labels, Miller effectively undermines these stereotypes. John seems to be the villain, but ping-ponging between the two women, he doesn’t have enough agency to be truly bad.
The preternaturally charming Gerwig works within the boundaries of her established persona, but Miller fleshes out the backstory of Maggie, offering culturally specific reasons for her can-do capability and the aversion to confrontation that motivates her scheming.
Moore deftly navigates a role in which she has to be at once “glacial and terrifying,” as well as broadly humorous. Costume designer Malgosia Turzanska expertly distinguishes the two women visually — Maggie dresses like a 1940s school marm while Georgette sports a uniform of complicated clogs and fuzzy sweaters. Fimmel is a welcome surprise as Guy, giving the character a stilted and earnest charm. A former Calvin Klein model who has cleaved his way into TV and movie stardom swinging swords on “Vikings” and in the forthcoming “Warcraft,” here he is given the chance to prove his bona fides with only a pickle in hand.
The writing crackles, and Miller doesn’t waste time getting right at the meat of the story. The characters speak as forthrightly as you might wish you could, and some are deliciously uncensored, like Maggie’s friend Tony (Bill Hader). Shockingly, the academics actually sound like academics, language which is so often bungled in movies.
“Maggie’s Plan” is sweet but analytical and pragmatic in its approach to exploring the ways of navigating partnership, parenthood and personal values. What Maggie realizes is that for all the planning in the world, there’s no messing with fate. Whether the idea is terrifying or a relief, life always finds its own way.
MPAA rating: R for language and brief sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles