Frances Ha is amazing.
It’s a funny, big-hearted but unsentimental exploration of friendship, the perambulations, bedevilment and unbridled joy of a relationship that disintegrates, reforms, ebbs and flows, evolves.
Greta Gerwig stars as Frances, (she also co-wrote the movie) a not-so-young ingénue forced to confront her own deficiencies and become an adult. She’s flighty, talented, discontented, nervous, at times awkward, often charming, and wary of the world. The film charts her friendship with Sophie, who is moving along in her professional and romantic lives, while Frances seems stuck. Frances wants to be a professional dancer but can’t quite make it past the apprentice level. She’s living in a beautiful, but unforgiving, New York that keeps her stretched financially. She can’t quite figure out why people get married or have children. When Sophie moves out, Frances’s life begins to deteriorate. The bulk of the movie is her moving from one apartment to another, each living situation getting worse and worse. She bears many burdens: worries over money, her hopes of a dancing career disappearing, and the widening emotional distance with her best friend.
The centerpiece of the film is Frances’s failed trip to Paris. She spends money she doesn’t have to go, with no plan or purpose, and ends up sleeping through half the trip and waiting for a phone call for the rest. It’s a hilarious but heart-rending experience, followed by further indignity when Frances has to take a job as a summer R.A. at her old college.
What holds the movie together is a razor sharp script, beautiful visuals, and an affectionate and generous belief in Frances. But even as you cheer for her, you peer into her life as through a microscope, scrutinizing her motivations, flaws and mistakes.
It’s also the most realistic evocation of a friendship I’ve seen. Sophie and Frances squabble, they play, they roam and wander, they compete, they speak a private language. And they hurt each other, sometimes quite deeply. And yet they maintain a deep compassion and love for each other.
A snapshot of two friends, moving through the slings and arrows of their late twenties.
Critics have focused on the influence of the French New Wave, and Truffaut is definitely the dominant inspiration of the movie—especially The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim—but there’s also a nod towards, and apotheosis of, the independent American cinema of the 1990s.
Baumbach cut his teeth on Kicking and Screaming in the mid-1990s, his first film and a very fine movie that pulls off the difficult trick of peeling back the cynical affectations of upper class privilege to burrow down into the main character’s heart-breaking loss. But it’s a precious affected movie, too, overshadowed by the (at the time) more talented Whit Stillman, the more shocking Greg Araki, the wilder and more ambitious Quentin Tarantino, or the brash and obsessive Wes Anderson. Baumbach kept at it though, finding failure, closed doors, hardship. He emerged in the 2000s as a sometimes screenwriting partner of Wes Anderson, another wunderkind from those glorious 90s. The two major talents somehow brought out the worst in each other: precious, cloying, overly scripted and yet meandering movies that seem filled with bizarre tonal shifts into earnestness.
Baumbach returned to directing to make an autobiographical film about his childhood. And it’s a doozy. The Squid and the Whale is a superb film—funny and caustic and brisk and insightful—but it’s dedicated to the teenage protagonist’s failings and flaws. The movie delineates his snobbery and pretentiousness. The movie seems to enjoy his various embarrassments, his comeuppance, his suffering. Frances Ha, in contrast, details the main character’s struggles. Her struggles seem important.
He made Margot at the Wedding next. It’s a very fine, and underrated, movie. It didn’t find an audience because a. Rachel Getting Married came out around the same time, and b. the tone of the film is dark, but subtle and half-hidden, like a John Cheever story. Great acting, a smart script, but something feels a bit off. There’s too much vinegar in the wine.
The story of a lonely, angry, misanthropic dude who has learned exactly nothing.
Greenberg suffers from the same problem. Some great scenes and funny lines, but an underlying tartness that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I liked Greenberg but it left me feeling edgy, annoyed. I kept wanting it to open up a little, but it maintained (an admittedly impressive) dour tone.
Baumbach’s career seemed set. He would struggle to find funding to make these harsh, well-written films about nasty, unhappy people, making fewer and fewer of them, and then give up Hollywood altogether.
But then something odd happened. He decided to make a movie with Greta Gerwig, the costar of Greenberg.
It was a great idea. Gerwig is a perfect writing partner for Baumbach. She’s generous where he’s misanthropic, she’s infused the film with compassion where Baumbach leans towards misanthropy, self-loathing and endlessly bickering characters. Both enjoy the discomfort of awkward social situations. She’s also a great actress, attractive and commanding but not glamorous. She trips, slips, spills. She maneuvers her face like the best physical comedians, stretching her lips into a rubbery snarl. Her career has been startling, similar to Parker Posey from the late 90s. She carries a kind of otherworldly innocence side by side a bruised wariness of the world. She imbues Frances with this gusto, touched by melancholy.
The film is both of our time, right now, and yet somehow feels timeless. And important. My gut tells me that Frances Ha will be the film of this generation.
The movie isn’t satire. It isn’t a metaphor. It isn’t a romance. Simple, elegant, moving, beautiful—it’s art, and I can’t wait to see it again.