New York City has occupied a place in the hearts of generations of young Americans that can only be described as mythic. Many are drawn to it—not just the big city but The Biggest City—by its seductive promise of unparalleled cultural opportunity and cosmopolitan assimilation. But what do they really find out there in the boroughs, so far away from home?
Frances Halladay’s journey to the Big Apple probably seemed like a no-brainer—she came to upstate Vassar College from Sacramento to study dancing, and it was just a quick hop from there after graduation to an apartment in NYC’s Chinatown with her best friend Sophie. We meet her a few years later, still underemployed and gamely taking her lumps in a low-rung position with a dance troupe. She finds solace in commiserating with Sophie, but when her friend announces that she is off to live elsewhere, Frances, played by Greta Gerwig, has to find a new path.
Directed by Noah Baumbach and written by Baumbach and Gerwig, “Frances Ha” belongs to a lineage of semi-arrested development films like "Ghost World" and "Adventureland" which all-too-accurately put their finger on a specific and relatable life station. It’s well-trod territory, but tempered for our times in a way no post-recession film has yet been, and anchored by a lead performance that echoes no less than Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.” It's a film that feels light, but its themes of growing up and letting go are anything but negligible.
After Sophie’s departure, Frances is set adrift among the teeming throngs of Brooklyn stereotypes—hip acquaintances with walls of records and designer furniture and sunglasses, who don’t flinch at their astronomical rent fees, or not for long, anyway. She’s 27 now, well past her college years chronologically, but hardly removed from them practically. She visits her well-meaning parents for the holidays, who seem relieved to be empty-nesters and less concerned about Frances than they probably should be. They take her to church service. She heads back to New York.
Comparisons to the French New Wave films of the 1960s, though ostensibly accurate, are problematic in that they may capture some of the quirky-cool energy of some of the film’s characters, but not Frances. It makes more sense to single out Francois Truffaut, whose humanism is a far better corollary than the cool remove of new wavers like Godard or Rohmer (the soundtrack also leans heavily on music by Georges Delerue, who composed music for 11 of Truffaut’s films.) Baumbach may be aping much of the visual style of the new wave, but the characters are far more contemporary and far less artificial.
“Frances Ha” stands in stark contrast (quite literally, with its black and white photography) to another 2013 film about a woman struggling with personal and economic demons, Woody Allen’s odd “Blue Jasmine.” In that film, Jasmine makes a reverse cross-country trek from New York to San Francisco in search of a new start. Jasmine’s far older than Frances, but her problems are the same—how will I get the money I need to live, and where will my life go from here? Indeed, “Frances Ha” feels like something of an update on Allen’s great “Annie Hall,” without the trappings of relationship woes, and told from a female point of view. Frances is Annie without an Alvy, on her own, floundering just the same.
It is remiss to praise “Frances Ha” without praising Greta Gerwig, who gives a performance so naturalistic and truthful that it barely registers as a performance at all. She exudes happiness and sadness all at once, youthful exuberance and hopefulness butting up against the new-found pressures of day-to-day adulthood, neither fully reconciled. “I’m so sorry, I’m not a real person yet,” she says when an attempt to pay for a dinner date hits a snag. But in seconds she’s bounding off for an ATM to rectify the problem. We feel a weariness taking hold in her, even as her default happy-go-lucky grin persists. When she hesitates briefly before agreeing to the ATM fee, it’s a moment that stings gently. Her gas tank is emptying.
Frances seems fragile but not breakable, pinging off her misfortunes with the kind of rubbery invincibility one surely needs to remain a New Yorker on a shoestring. Earnest and sweet, she’s a transplant, and it shows. She marvels at people around her, and people marvel at her, too. When someone at a friend’s house announces that they are hungry, but all they have is eggs, she excitedly cooks frittatas for all, and receives a bewildered round of applause.
At a dinner party scene, the film delivers its swiftest punch. Surrounded by wealthy professionals not much older than she, Frances gamely makes a go at eye-level conversation, but her quiet embarrassment eventually shows itself. One guest, a lawyer with his young wife and newborn in tow, flippantly offers Frances the option of staying in their Parisian villa “if you ever make it to Paris,” spoken with the kind of blind condescension that only money can imbue. In a manic moment of boiled-over frustration, Frances awkwardly takes up his offer. She’s had enough of doing right by her empty wallet. She acts out. One hefty credit card transaction later, she’s in the city of light, sleeping off her jetlag.
This is how it is when one becomes mired in a fragmented and flummoxed post-collegiate period. Unmoored from safety nets and institutions, little is permanent and much is hard, and active participation in adulthood feels uncertain and distant. Frances clings to the bits and pieces of a life she’s been able to assemble, while others around her leap in with careers and families, somehow. How did they do it? When is it her turn? Did she mess this all up?
When we leave Frances, just after she completes a suitably adult string of meaningful personal accomplishments, the film’s not-quite-perfunctory ending rings both true and false. Nothing’s like it’s supposed to be, really—Sophie’s in Japan, and Frances is on her own in a town that regards her indifferently, if at all. Both fulfilled and unfulfilled, this is what her life looks like now, and however improbably, things will be just fine. Until they’re not again.
Is Frances “un-dateable” after all? Is she on a path that makes sense? Is she happy? Her questions are our questions, in Chinatown or Washington Heights or anywhere else.
Think I'm an idiot? You wouldn't be the first. Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter.