Frances Ha (2012) — Image via memento-films.com

Frances Ha

Directed by Noah Baumbach (2012)

Despite the fact that Noah Baumbach has been directing, writing, and acting for almost twenty years, his 2012 film, Frances Ha, feels like the work of a newer filmmaker, so infused is it with earnestness and the fumbling yet exuberant hope of the youthful. It is a testament to Baumbach’s talent that his film manages to avoid cynicism (while depicting rich New Yorkers no less) and is instead a funny, refreshing, and heartfelt look at the many forms that journeys into adulthood can take.

Much of what causes Baumbach’s film to succeed is the emotional depth and likability of Frances (Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the film), a twenty-seven year old dancer struggling to make it in the competitive New York dance world. Throughout her many steps and missteps — which include couch-hopping from one friend’s apartment to the next, nearly making rent, working to get promoted from apprentice to full member of the dance company she works for, and negotiating the tenuous and painful terrain of failing friendships — Frances eventually comes to realize that her true talents lie not in performing other people’s dances but in her own skills as a choreographer. This career shift, made in the last scene of the film, serves as a symbol for the other ways that Frances has begun and will continue to craft a life that honors the free-wheeling spontaneity that makes her so likable but avoids the shaky lack of confidence that makes her so prone to being damaged by others.

Frances Ha (2012) — Image via memento-films.com“It’s so you,” Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise), a dance colleague, tells Frances upon seeing the performance she has choreographed. “Yes,” Frances replies. “I like things that look like mistakes.” These words (spoken not in a self-deprecating way, but in a celebratory one) highlight the film’s ever-present question of whether or not Frances’s questionable actions — such as taking a two day trip to Paris that she can’t afford or getting drunk and publically denouncing her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and Sophie’s fiancé, Patch (Patrick Heusinger) — were really mistakes or simply necessary moves in the larger dance of her life, steps that may not always be graceful but contribute to the beauty and complexity of the whole.

Frances’s journey towards literal and metaphorical choreographer is peppered with potential lessons that she is often slow to learn, giving the viewer time to learn as well. One of the earliest scenes in the film consists of Frances’s boyfriend, Dan (Michael Esper), asking her to move in with him. She tells him that she can’t because she shares a lease with Sophie. Although it quickly becomes evident that the lease would be easy enough to break, it becomes equally clear that Frances does not want to live with anyone other than Sophie. Frustrated, Dan tells Frances that it’s not that she “can’t” move in with him, it’s that she “won’t,” introducing the theme of desire versus obligation, something Frances returns to throughout the film when figuring out what necessary duties she is willing to incorporate into her life as she attempts to, in her words, become a “real person,” and which duties she is not.

We see, for example, her initial distaste for the office job she is offered at the dance studio where she apprentices, her rejection mirroring her earlier rejection of Dan, only to see her decide later to take the job since it allows her free use of the studio to develop her choreography. The fact that she has agreed to a less than ideal employment situation in order to nurture her art and be around other creative people (although perhaps not in the capacity she had originally hoped) shows growth and maturity as well as the ability to no longer conflate refusal and inability. Similarly, when Frances finds herself in debt after her ill-conceived trip to Paris, her parents tell her that they cannot help her out financially. It isn’t clear if they literally don’t have the extra cash to do so or if they “can’t” in the same way that Frances “can’t” move in with Dan, hoping their withholding of funds will teach Frances something about financial responsibility.

Frances Ha (2012) — Image via memento-films.comThis issue of money brings up another question Frances is forced to ask herself repeatedly throughout the film: What must an artist who does not come from wealth do to support herself and her art? Although Frances’s status as a dancer places her amongst the New York rich and their toys (hairless cats and old fashioned cameras being some of the more visually appealing, an apartment in Paris being one of the more predictable), she is certainly not one of them. Albeit a graduate of what appears to be Vassar College, and therefore more privileged than many, Frances cannot depend on the regular checks from her parents that her peer group seems to rely upon heavily. Almost universally, these friends of Frances’s have strained familial relationships, contrasting to Frances’s relationship with her family which appears to be filled with unconditional love and unquestionable support (albeit not of the financial kind). While the dichotomy between using one’s parents as a bank while disdaining them and loving one’s parents genuinely while expecting no monetary reward is perhaps a bit simplistic, it does raise questions about how the quest for wealth affects the parent-child relationship and ultimately asks what type of people the children of the economically elite grow up to be.

To further emphasize the notion that money, while it may be able to buy vintage Ray-Bans, cannot buy happiness, in one of the warmest sections of the film we see Frances travel to her parents’ home in Sacramento, which is homey but modest. The trip is clearly presented as a much needed respite from the relentless cold of New York (in its many forms), and it is a pleasure to watch Frances’s neurotic and protective layers melt away as she reconnects with family and friends and engages in self-contained tasks that are satisfying in and of themselves, such as taking down the Christmas lights with her dad or drying the dishes while her parents wash and rinse. There is a sweetness to these scenes that suggests that the act of everyday living with people who know and love you — while perhaps not as glamorous as the life she and her friends in New York live — is sustaining, comforting, and maybe even more fulfilling than the dreams she and her peers have been chasing. This observation takes on added significance when we consider that her visit to Sacramento is likely made possible by the fact that she is not given a role in the dance company’s Christmas production (one that she had been hoping to land for reasons of both professional development and economic solvency), suggesting that in every major failure there are many tiny solaces.

As a woman in her late twenties surrounded by others of the same age or a little bit older, Frances tends to find herself surrounded by conversations that revolve around major life decisions: marriage, housing, children, careers, and striking a balance between these things. One thing that makes Frances’s journey into adulthood seemingly more difficult than those of her friends is her inability to embrace the inevitable changes that come with time. This is illustrated in her love for a tale she and Sophie tell each other about themselves and their lives to come, a story that probably originated in their college days in which the two women remain single, free to become a famous dancer and a powerful publisher respectively. Frances’s devastation when Sophie decides to give up their shared living arrangement and marry Patch shows the extent to which she is invested in this fantasy. Frances’s young adult dreams were never idle hypotheticals to her as they were for others, and thus, she seems to have a harder time giving them up. We see this in her determination to become a professional dancer even after many years spent apprenticing without a promotion. “I have a hard time leaving anywhere quickly” she tells several characters throughout the film, by which she is referring not only to the disorganization of her physical space but also her unwillingness to relinquish or revise the decade-old dreams that have come to define her.

Frances Ha (2012) — Image via memento-films.comWhen Frances realizes that others disapprove of her slowness to adapt, she goes through a brief stage in which she lies about nearly every aspect of her life in an attempt to convince her friends and family that she is progressing at an acceptable rate, a course of action that predictably catapults her into deep despair. It is not until, out of economic desperation, she takes a summer job at her alma mater and is surrounded by current students who mistake her for one of them that she realizes that she cannot live the life she led in her early twenties and must abandon the wish to do so. It is from this point that she is psychologically free to begin pursuing her career as a choreographer, albeit with great trepidation. (Nothing easy is worthwhile, the film constantly reminds us.)

Given the slowness of Frances’s realization that she must no longer let the past completely dictate her desires, she receives scorn and derision from several characters in the film, many of whom tell her in no uncertain terms that she needs to get her shit together. Ultimately, the film casts these people as disposable and depicts them as alternatively ridiculous, shallow, out of touch, mean-spirited, or deeply dissatisfied with the trajectories their seemingly more ordered lives have taken. A major point the film aims to make is that journeys toward adulthood unfold in myriad ways, take a variety of detours, and don’t follow set timelines, and it is important not to let the assholes that we are all bound to meet along the way make us feel less than worthy when our lives don’t look like theirs.

Because the film is so heavily populated by detractors, ranging from the annoying to the vicious, the character of Benji (Michael Zegen), the friend of a friend of a friend who Frances shares an apartment with briefly, becomes notable. Other than Sophie and the members of her family, Benji is the only character in the film who treats Frances with compassion and unmotivated kindness, helping her stave off a bad hangover, offering her encouragement when she is not chosen to participate in the Christmas show, and defending her from the criticism of others. Like Frances, Benji dances between jobs, taking pride in getting fired, even in knowingly attempting work he feels is not properly challenging like writing for SNL. What is notable about Benji is that, while he has not yet found the career success that many in the film have, he seems genuinely happy with his life and isn’t above deferring a long-range goal in favor of an afternoon spent sitting on the couch watching movies. Through his commitment to pursuing the beauty of the present, to not letting unbridled ambition taint all his personal interactions, and through trusting that the future will be rich with opportunity whether he works six hours a day or sixteen, Benji is able to teach Frances how to create a more contented existence than those of the many characters who are rabidly chasing their goals at the expense of all else. The fact that Benji and Frances are both single at the end of the film (and tell each other so) suggests that they may have a romantic future, one they are likely well suited to share, since they are both learning how to construct lives that have room for big dreams but also the day to day minutiae of life.

Frances Ha (2012) — Image via memento-films.comThe film teaches Frances, and, by extension, us, many valuable truths about friendship, art, loyalty, privilege, the inevitability of change, and the quest for success. There is value in these lessons, making my criticisms of the film feel like mere quibbles. Nonetheless, here they are. The writing is usually quite good, imitating the pared-down, congenial, yet still bored-sounding stream-of-consciousness style of youth with education (my students talk this way); however, the few times the writing fails, it does so rather awkwardly. Ironically enough, this happens most often in the dialogue between Frances and Sophie, the closest characters in the film. In one particularly clunky scene, the two women, who are still roommates at this point, discuss the virtues and drawbacks of cohabitation. Sophie complains about a casserole dish that Frances left in the sink for three days, and Frances complains about a disastrous cake that Sophie made. The conversation continually falls flat, partially because it is bent on exposition and thus sounds far more stilted than a conversation between friends would actually be. (They’ve lived together for a long time; why are they having this conversation now?). Thankfully, these moments are few, and most of the interactions are much more artfully written and delivered.

My second quibble: sometimes, to use Sophie’s words, the film seems “very aware of itself,” a criticism she levels at Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji’s apartment the first time she sees it. Despite its many critiques of the culturally and economically elite, the film seems to know that it’s cool, that it follows the lives of cool people with cool problems in a cool city. One of the factors contributing to this coolness is the constant reporting of the precise location of events. For those familiar with New York’s neighborhoods, this probably indicates something specific (something specific, by the way, that most viewers could figure out on their own without an extensive knowledge of New York), but the rest of us are left with the sneaking suspicion that we might not be cool enough to hang out at Benji and Lev’s apartment, or cool enough to see a show put on by Frances’s dance company, and certainly not cool enough to attend the barrage of dinners Frances finds herself at, where conversation is less a means of communicating and more a weapon used to wound, even annihilate the perceived competition. Whereas the flashing of addresses across the screen is likely meant to inform, it made the film seem insecure, as if it wasn’t quite sure of its ability to depict everything it needed to depict unless it placed itself very specifically. It felt like the move of a much younger filmmaker who somehow needed to use location to provide himself with credibility.

These flaws, however, were in no way enough to ruin the film for me. Frances’s bumbling and addictive sweetness, her quirky self-absorption in the midst of trying to connect meaningfully with others, her conviction that art is important, and her difficulty in giving up the magic of past happiness make for an extremely memorable character, one whom I was glad I could travel alongside, root for, dance with.

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Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.

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