I always feel like I should like Greta Gerwig movies more than I do, but my disappointment is never any real fault of hers. Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg used her as basically a manic pixie dream girl without the manic or the pixie, as did Arthur. Damsels in Distress sounded mostly like Whit Stillman’s old voice coming out of everyone’s young mouths, which was about as creepy as when Tom Wolfe did the same thing in his pearl-clutcher, I Am Charlotte Simmons. Lola Versus just wasn’t very good, mostly tripping over its own Williamsburg worship. And few of Gerwig’s other roles have been very notable.
And so I’m very glad to find that Baumbach’s Frances Ha finally uses Gerwig to the best of her abilities, which may have something to do with her collaboration in the writing. Even better, it explores similar ground to Girls, but without making me feel horrible while watching it.
Like Lena Dunham’s Hannah, Frances is a Brooklyn-dwelling woman in her twenties with artistic aspirations, who cannot seem to make a good decision to save her life. Unlike Hannah, not everyone around Frances is in a similar tailspin, and that goes a long way towards making Frances Ha a much more pleasant experience.
We follow Frances over a year in her life when she finally cannot fake it anymore. Her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), moves into Tribeca, which Frances cannot afford as an apprentice in a dance company. Frances moves in with her artist friends Benji (Michael Zegen) and Lev (Adam Driver, almost unrecognizable from Girls clean-shaven and wearing a shirt), who are both insulated from financial realities by rich parents. “Only rich people can afford to be artists in New York,” Sophie says, quickly excepting Frances from that statement.
But Frances is no exception. In another departure from Girls, her actions have consequences; after years of scraping by it becomes clear that Frances can’t stay with the company forever, but what else can she do? She takes a long winter break with her parents (Gerwig’s actual parents) in Sacramento; she wheedles living arrangements from an indulgent friend; she takes an extremely ill-advised weekend trip to Paris. And through it all she dodges and prevaricates about how her life is really going, even when being honest could lead to a break.
It’s every bit as frustrating to watch Frances make these bad decisions as it is to watch Hannah, but it’s clearer why she’s doing it: it’s terrifying to face up to the idea that not only is life not turning out the way you’d wanted it to, it’s not going to get any better, either. In college, Frances nurtured dreams of becoming a famous modern dancer, but it’s just not in the cards. Chasing after that dream and pretending it’s not already gone isn’t going to make her happy; she cannot go back and recapture what she once had.
Baumbach and Gerwig’s script marbles this heavy realization with enough wit and irony to make it come out consistently funny and lighter than it might otherwise feel. The dialogue spills out with a drily comic pacing that recalls Manhattan as much as the black-and-white cinematography does.
The whole cast feels very real; yes, many of them are pretentious hipsters, but the film never quite fawns over them for it the way Lola Versus did. They just are who they are, which seems to be working for them, and it’s easy to see why someone might find their lives alluring enough to pretend it’s actually working out for her, too.
Are there people who have not had to go through some course correction in their lives, probably in their twenties? sure. These are the lucky few who manage to have life work out more or less as planned; who go on to do great things with the good hand they’ve been dealt. These are the people we praise and idolize; who we invite to our college graduations to acclaim for being acclaimed. These are the ones who irresponsibly preach the gospel of Follow Your Dreams, as if following your dreams really was a road to happiness that would never turn out to lead instead into misfortune and frustration.
Frances Ha is for the rest of us, who eventually come to terms with the real world. It’s for those who learn to chase happiness instead of our dreams. It’s for those who never quite clicked into stardom with the right opportunities that showed us off in the perfect light, but still managed to find a place we could fit and work and be comfortably us.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.