Maggie’s Plan opens quickly with its central conflict: Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a young college professor looking to have a child, but with no real successful relationship to bolster it. So she has a solution: she’s got an old college friend willing to donate his sperm, and she’ll raise the child as a single mom.
The plan begins falling in place, like dominoes gently bumping into each other, until Maggie meets another professor, John (Ethan Hawke), who’s struggling to write his Next Great American Novel. She reads the first chapter, gives him the feedback he’s been longing for, and off they go. There’s just one problem: he’s married. With kids. She doesn’t realize that she’s not only inspiring him, but also giving him the attention his rising academic star Georgette (Julianne Moore) can’t seem to afford him.
I’m not going to give away what happens, but I will say there is a point where Maggie realizes the romantic ideals she had may no longer hold weight. What began as a torrid love affair in which she inspired him to write the book he always felt he had in him – so romantic! – has been brushed with the banality and reality of family life a few too many times. At a certain point, Maggie wonders if she’s made a mistake. We don’t often see regret and the genuine inner crisis it births in movies. Often it’s glossed over. And even when Maggie’s Plan threatens to lean into a romantic triangle with way too tidy of an ending, it always, always remains true to the characters. Even the most ridiculous notions have their own internal logic to them, which makes them much easier to swallow. We may not agree with it, but we understand where they’re coming from.
The most jaw-dropping moment to me – the one I’m still thinking about months later – takes place only 20 minutes into the movie. The sperm donor friend Maggie has arranged for – a rather intense, quiet man with a burgeoning pickle business (no joke) – is about to take the donor container into the bathroom and take care of business. Just before he shuts the door, Maggie asks him – a former college math major – why he never became a mathematician.
Guy: I liked math because it was beautiful, that’s all. I never wanted to be a mathematician.
Maggie: Really? You think math is beautiful?
Guy: Anyone who’s touched even a hem of that garment knows it’s beautiful. For me, the hem was enough. Couldn’t have taken the frustration.
Maggie: What do you mean?
Guy: Never seeing the whole thing. You’re always just getting these glimpses of the whole picture. Spending my whole life for scraps of truth.
It sounds like a well-written throwaway mini-monologue, and I’m honestly shocked it’s not something that’s been picked up on or written about elsewhere (the fact the film only grossed $3,070 at the box office probably has something to do with it). But it says everything about the movie. It encapsulates the message in a few short lines from the mouth of a character that nobody – not Maggie, not even the audience – takes seriously.
You can see Maggie struggle throughout the film with never seeing the whole thing. She thinks she knows what a happy family and relationship knows and feels like. She thinks she knows what it takes to get there. But it’s not worked out at all the way she imagined. She’s just getting glimpses of the whole picture; she’s scrapping for truth in real and painful ways. Georgette and John, in their own ways, are also scrapping for these bits of truth. They thought their marriage was terrible, and it, oddly enough, took an affair to realize that maybe they weren’t as far off the mark as they thought.
And so it’s fitting, with her final shots, that director Rebecca Miller reintroduces this odd, rather deep man into the story, right at the last moment when happiness seems to be just around the corner and coming up the hill.
Still available for rent at Redbox and on iTunes.