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Rooney Mara: look out, Greta Gerwig – there’s a new arthouse darling in town

Gena Rowlands, Parker Posey, Chloë Sevigny, Greta Gerwig. These are the US indie queens, women whose legends were built by low-budget films, who used their intrinsic cool and prolific output to keep the most precarious corner of the film industry afloat. With this month’s release of Una and A Ghost Story, two high-profile indies both starring Rooney Mara, is it time to anoint the next successor?

Mara certainly has the fascinating presence and offbeat attractiveness of an indie queen. Leave the obvious “babes” to the summer blockbusters, indie cinema thrives on the kind of look that Mara’s former director Steven Soderbergh once described as a “very classical, almost silent-movie face”. Her filmography shapes up, too: having made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints with director David Lowery back in 2013, their reteaming on A Ghost Story suggests a Sevigny/Whit Stillman or Gerwig/Noah Baumbach creative friendship in the making. Put it this way: the closest Mara has got to the bankable franchise role that underpins most successful Hollywood careers was playing the asocial and anarchic Lisbeth in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s US remake.

Mara’s latest, Una, is also the kind of film that perhaps only a true indie queen could make. It’s low budget, her character is conflicted and difficult to warm to, and the queasy-making subject matter – a now-adult victim of child abuse confronts the abuser she thinks she still has feelings for – would never draw multiplex-sized audiences. It fits all the criteria laid out by the first in her line, Gena Rowlands, when discussing her iconic part in Gloria: “John [Cassavetes] wrote this part for a major star, who turned it down. She felt it wasn’t glamorous enough. I said, ‘I want it, and I don’t care if you pay me anything.’”

It’s telling that the indie queen has no real male equivalent. Mara’s frequent co-stars Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix, for instance, are red-carpet regulars, while Una’s Ben Mendelsohn is a star in the Steve Buscemi mould, a successful character actor who occasionally gets bigger parts in smaller movies. A true indie queen can’t blend into the supporting cast; she’s too luminous and too unusual. And this may be where Mara’s claim to the throne grows tenuous. Her predecessors have all projected their own quirky charisma, but with Mara it’s more about the qualities that can be projected on to that “silent-movie face”. That’s the quality that has endeared her to directors from Soderbergh to Terrence Malick and Spike Jonze.