As a French major interested in film, I thought Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha would be great, just from the trailer—not only for its unusual monochrome aesthetic or music borrowed from the New Wave but also because the title character is broke and has no idea what she’s doing with her life. I thought I wanted a cinematic celebration of the all-too-familiar twenty-something existential crisis but realized that, with a growing sense of frustration throughout the movie, I’d like to grow out of it someday, too. Frances Ha explores a quest for fulfillment that resonates with a younger audience but offers us visual escape over thoughtful reflection, flat archetypes over compelling characters.
Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a 27-year-old aspiring dancer living in Brooklyn with Sophie (Mickey Summer), her best friend from college. The film follows her day-to-day bohemian post-college life as she’s “getting it together.” On-and-off dating, friends, work, paying the rent, it’s every young Brooklynite’s barrage of #firstworldproblems. When asked what the movie is about I’m inclined to answer in clichés. It’s about being in your twenties and wandering around.
Indecisive and lacking confidence, Frances goes wherever she feels like going. At one point she goes to Paris on a spontaneous weekend trip with a credit card she can’t afford to be using—because, why not? I think of Tolkien’s oft-cited words, “Not all those who wander are lost.” But I can’t say the same for Frances. Around her, things are changing, quickly. The dance company lays her off and Sophie moves out, gets back with her fratty Wall Street analyst ex, and the couple moves to Japan.
The loneliness of “real life” hits her and she deals with it the way she’s dealt with things before, feigning indifference and making rash decisions. She escapes to her parents’ house in California for the holidays after she is kicked off the company roster and can no longer pay her rent. There’s a revelatory moment where Frances is soaking in the bathtub after seeing the place she used to live in, the things she used to own. A close-up of her face makes you wonder if she’s thinking about her life, about the wayward path she’s taken. But her mother interrupts, insisting she get out; ignoring both her mother and her thoughts, she sinks down into the bathwater. It’s an unsettling shot for you realize she constructs a buffer zone of white lies around her, coping with reality by tweaking it in her head.
This revelation would be more interesting if the film didn’t present these family scenes in an oddly cheery, disjointed aside. Baumbach and Gerwig (who co-wrote the film) gloss over the details, render them insignificant. They provide no clues as to why Frances is the way she is, perhaps because the scenes were shot in Gerwig’s real hometown with her actual parents—it’s more a comical cameo than an opportunity for character development. At this point we begin to wonder whether the black and white cinematography is mere decoration, the film tweaking its own reality.
Amidst all the praise for the film’s light-heartedness and refreshing youthfulness I sense a deeper observation being pushed aside: Frances is unhappy, but doesn’t let herself acknowledge it. Her quasi-romantic love for her friend Sophie is tearing apart, she is broke and living in an apartment she can barely afford, and she is a dancer who “doesn’t really do it.” She does have dreams. In a drunken, stream-of-consciousness monologue on love, Frances describes her ”secret world that exists right there, in public, that no one else knows about.” But she doesn’t want to stop and think about how to get there.
That said, Frances isn’t supposed to be a role model; much of her appeal comes from her awkward quirks and her hypocritical idiosyncrasies. But she is the face of a modern, urban creative type, and I can see a bit of myself in her jumbled mess of a life. So the question remains: is Frances a character we should be interested in, one who will pull out of the general downward spiral she follows in the first half of the movie, or is she just a glorified poster child of twenty-something life, more an idea than a person?
You can think of Frances Ha as an updated coming-of-age story, which shifts the focus from adolescence to (not-so-young) adulthood. To begin with, Frances is 27, older than most budding “young professionals.” Propelled into a limbo of unemployment and friendlessness, she is forced to reconcile reality and her idealized image of it. Along the way she stumbles—quite literally in one scene with a frantic ATM search—but she gets back up and keeps going. Coming of age is exactly that: a process, a becoming, one that might come later in life than we expect. There is something endearing about the way Gerwig sincerely plays the insecure, confused, earnest Frances.
But the optimism comes off as artificial. After begrudgingly accepting an offer for an office job at her company, Frances focuses on her choreography and eventually puts on a show—though how much preparation and time this took, given her apparent lack of skill, is skipped over with sudden cuts. At the post-show reception, Frances’ romantic dream comes true. Meeting Sophie’s flirtatious eyes mid-conversation, there is a moment, that moment. It’s not a sickeningly sweet ending; in fact, I think its subtlety disappoints me more. Our heroine’s moment of happiness is completely believable, but you don’t know how hard earned it was.
Let me qualify my opening description of Frances Ha. It’s about being in your twenties and wandering around and finding love. Not a bad formula for a crowd-pleasing film, especially when you add some New Wave je ne sais quoi. In the end what you have is an upbeat film with some great, naturalistic performances and beautiful cinematography. But I get the sense that Baumbach and Gerwig are telling themselves their own little lies, hiding behind the hipness of monochrome, cinephilia, and the ironic proclamation, Ha!
Ryohei Ozaki is a senior in the French and Italian Department.