The quarter-life crisis is hard to capture on film. Unless you are burdened by some horrible personal tragedy, life in your mid-20’s after you graduate from college is hard to make into interesting comedy or drama, because in the big picture it’s pretty insignificant in the spectrum of life. But director Noah Baumbach took a stab at it anyway with “Frances Ha,” a black-and-white comedy about an eccentric, 27-year-old woman with a degree in modern dance named Frances (the wonderful Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script with Baumbach), who tries and fails to get her shit together in a romantic but still foreboding New York City. This is a character study, since there is nothing in this film beyond the perspective of Frances, as we are invited to observe a few weeks in her life, which undergoes several upheavals.
Frances is an understudy in a local dance company. It doesn’t matter at first, since the streets of Brooklyn are her stage, as she joyously pirouettes through the masses. She shares an apartment with Sophie (Micky Sumner), and they have a friendship that’s described as being like “a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” Frances is so committed to her relationship with Frances that she breaks up with her boyfriend after refusing to move in with him. Unfortunately, Sophie is moving in to her boyfriend’s apartment, leaving Frances out on her own for the first time in her adult life.
Frances is a fascinating character. She has a naivete about her, but she isn’t quite dumb. She’s a free-spirit who’s constricted by her surroundings and her own immaturity. In other words, she’s a human being. Greta Gerwig, full aware that this is a role perfect for a budding movie star, deftly brings all of Frances’ hang-ups to life. She has a face Norma Desmond would approve of; expressive, imperfect, awkward, yet still beguiling. Gerwig personifies unconventionality.
A more glib title for this film would be “Living Arrangements: The Movie” since that’s what Frances goes through after Sophie leaves her behind. She moves in with two pretentious artists (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) who are just as immature as she is but are far more stable. She briefly lives with one of her fellow dancers, which after a disastrous dinner with her family inspires her to spend a whopping two days in Paris, most of which is dealing with the jet lag. Frances is stuck in that post-college limbo that ensnares a lot of us recent graduates. You don’t know what to do will your life until the “rest of your life” phase kicks in. Along with that is the fear that the “rest of your life” phase is happening right now.
“Frances Ha” registered strongly with me, since I’m in a similar stage in my life as our dear Frances. Peers thinking your old at 27 (25, in my case). Having friendships weaken when one of them matures faster than the other. Lying about and embellishing your career prospects when the real adults ask about them. Going on spontaneous trips or misaventures only to immediately realize they were pretty fucking stupid ideas. What Baumbach and Gerwig do with Frances is not play up her misfortunes to the point where they seem petty to those outside of her demographic. This movie never says “poor me.” Frances isn’t destitute. She’s in a city bursting with opportunities. Guys, find her “undateable,” but the movie doesn’t delve into her love life, and thank God for that. “Frances Ha” has moments of sadness and discomfort, but it isn’t a drama. It’s a comedy; a spirited, even joyous one, in some moments. Scenes where Frances experiences a setback, such as a heartbreaking phone call with Sophie during which both friends are concealing personal miseries, end in punchlines, or non sequiters. “Frances Ha” doesn’t have, or need, much plot. It has dancing in the streets. It has David Bowie crooning about “Modern Love,” even though Frances doesn’t find any, at least not in this film. It’s a love letter to an imposing city that is also a romantic one, even in lo-fi digital black and white.
That’s what makes “Frances Ha” such a unique character study. It doesn’t have the raw sexuality or darkness of the similar HBO show “Girls” (which Adam Driver also appears in) but it doesn’t need it. Baumbach and Gerwig don’t need to show us rock bottom. Their film is about possibilities, both good and bad. The film’s title is a reference to a punchline revealed in the final shot, which I won’t reveal here, but it sums up the movie perfectly. Frances is a dreamer who doesn’t fit neatly into reality, but she’s willing to make herself fit. And to do that, you have to literally and figuratively look back and laugh.