Frances Ha is one of those bolt-of-lightening films, something so modern and tangible, you’re utterly surprised to see that someone has managed to capture the feeling of being alive, right now, so exquisitely.
Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a modern dancer. Well, she’s a backup in a modern dance company but isn’t exactly dancing as much as she’d like. And she lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), until Sophie moves out to live with her Goldman-Sachs douchebag of a boyfriend. So begins a difficult year in Frances’ life that takes her through some changes but leaves her relatively unmoved from her usual self. The plot of the film is such a delight to discover, that to say too much more is to take away one of the key pleasures of the film — the discovery. Frances doesn’t quiet know what’s going to happen next, and why should we be any different?
And oh, what a girl. Frances is 27, and flighty at times, indecisive, happy and sad but not always understanding why, living what we have come to understand is a Very New York Kind of Life. Reading, parties, drinking, friends and talking and feelings and all of it. Frances doesn’t know what she wants, but like everybody who graduated in the midst of an economic crisis, is in transition and kind of waiting for her future to arrive — when she sees it, she’ll know it. All of the things I usually find detestable about Gerwig’s performances — mannered, stilted, overly earnest, cloying — are perfectly suited to the script and character, and instead of making the character unlikable, transform her into someone very relatable. Frances is awkward! Unbelievably unaware at times! But still, doing her best like a champ.
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, the film is remarkable through and through. Though it does get a bit boring half way through, it picks up again and makes a case for itself. What an exceptionally delightful time to be a woman with something to say. Along with Zoe Kazan’s Ruby Sparks and Rashida Jones’ Celeste and Jesse Forever, and of course Lena Dunham’s wonderful creations, Gerwig is wholly embodying a role she had a heavy hand in crafting. Saying what she wants to say about the here and now. While you may not agree with their view of the world or like it, that it is being said at all is a triumph beyond belief. The supporting cast, from Sumner’s dry and passive Sophie to Adam Driver as the sexually charged roommate Lev, all are chosen elegantly and slide into their roles with ease.
The meandering moment-here and moment-there approach of editing and black and white filming of the story gives one the overall snapshot of one woman’s existence, in a style very much like Woody Allen. And oh my god, is it all so funny at times.The audience of 80-year-olds I was with didn’t seem to appreciate the humor, but I laughed, often, at Frances’ painful attempts at normalcy, the grandiose plans and statements, and the throwaway one-liners from the entitled and the unaware, alike.
There’s something so refreshing about familiarity, and Baumbach and Gerwig nail this aspect of youth so well. If you’ve never been in a friendship like Sophie and Frances’ then you might scoff at the level of closeness, but I knew immediately what they meant from the first bit of play slap-fighting to the last moments of lingering glances. It isn’t latent sexual longing, but friendship of the closest sort, the kind of relationship that means more than any boyfriend ever could. The friendships I’ve had with women, especially women I’ve lived with as roommates, have far out shown in intimacy the relationships I’ve had with any man. This isn’t a slight to the men I’ve loved, but rather an acknowledgement of differences. And, in Frances Ha, there is a casual joy to the interactions, the way these two women are entirely themselves, good, bad, bitchy and sentimental all at once, making fun of friends and acquaintances while enjoying every moment together. To see such friendships depicted on screen is important, to show these kind of friendships that are complicated, not because of petty jealousies or low level incompatibilities, but complicated because people are generally trying to figure shit out, trying to just exist and not hate their lives. Wrongs done are so rarely done out of malice, no, most often we end up hurting those we love out of stupid, selfish reasons.
Most importantly of all, the film isn’t entirely about romantic love, for once. There isn’t some looming romance meant to destroy or solve everything about Frances. She is basically just trying to live well, but without much understanding of what that means for her future. Living uncertainly, in a world of people our own age who seem to be adults, is the hallmark of the late twenty-something, and Baumbach especially is gifted at capturing and conveying that feeling of restless uncertainty. As in his very, very fine film Kicking and Screaming, there’s moments and sentences that feel drawn from the very quintessential core of what it is to be alive, giving voice to what lay silent inside us for so long. Frances Ha is drawn from the same well of deep understanding.
Over and over, Frances remarks that she and Sophie are the same person, but with different hair, and some of the best scenes are of the girls talking late at night about what their lives might be. The myths we tell ourselves and each other, our origin stories and the building of our histories are just as important as the actualities and realities of our daily lives. To be aware of the looming future, to remember most of our shared past, and to recite that lyrical awareness back and forth, back and forth, to tell the story of us — Frances Ha is a remarkable, visceral meditation on the power of loving and being loved, and our endless attempts to even understand what it might be to love ourselves.
Amanda Mae Meyncke is trying to figure it all out too, she is on Twitter and elsewhere.