Frances Ha

Baumbachian Uplift
The Setup: 
Woman in New York is adrift.

I have a love-hate relationship with the works of Noah Baumbach. Love that he vary accurately captures the nuances of a lot of contemporary characters in a way that illuminates people like them in real life, hate because for whatever reason, he can't seem to follow his characters to their logical ends, and supplies all of them with some last-minute uplift or unearned redemption. While Squid and Whale got bogged down by writing-workshop conventions, I was super into Greenberg for its vivid portrait of a very contemporary type: the guy who was super cool at twenty-five, who now at forty can't understand that he hasn't moved on, and is not cool anymore. But it ended with a bit of a squish. My friends forced me to see this on their recommendation by comparing it to Ghost World, to which it does compare... unfavorably.

Our man character is Frances, played by the charming Greta Gerwig, who has never been so beautiful, in certain shots resembling Catherine Deneuve. She's a 27yo woman living in Brooklyn with her best friend from college, Sophie. In the first scene, she declines to move in with her boyfriend because of loyalty to Sophie, who she thinks will ask her to renew. She and her boyfriend quickly realize that there isn't all that much between them, and they break up. Then Sophie says that she's moving in with her boyfriend, and will not renew her lease with Frances. For the majority of the rest of the film, Sophie just doesn't want Frances around, for no good reason, although we can surmise that she's just going through a period where she's simply sick of Frances and wants to get some distance.

Frances moves in with two young guys, both of whom are subsidized by their parents. This is where the homage to Godard's Bande a' Part is most apparent, also carried by the black and white photography of the whole thing. Frances is counting on being in her dance troupe's Christmas show to be able to afford rent, but she soon finds out that not only will she not be allowed in the overall company, she can't even be in the Christmas show. While she's living there she becomes fast friends with Benji, am aspiring writer who is trying to get on Saturday Night Live and is writing a spec script for Gremlins 3. Soon she is forced to move out again, and is allowed to stay with a dancer from her troupe who clearly doesn't like her all that much.

In here were two details that really hit the nail on the head regarding young people in contemporary New York. In one, Frances and Sophie are dreaming of their futures, and imagine creating an artwork that will seal their careers forever and spur them to be granted honorary degrees, "so many honorary degrees," which speaks volumes about these people: they aspire to having numerous degrees, so long as they don't have to do any work to earn them. They should just be awarded for who they ARE. The other one, and I have lived through this numerous times, is that Frances and Benji are best friends and inseparable, but then she moves out, and a while later she runs into him with someone else, and you realize that they haven't been in touch once she moved out. It captures the nature of a lot of New York "out of sight, out of mind" friendships.

And for a good long time, these details build up, as we follow Frances from residence to residence, trying this and that, ever more desperate and disappointed and trying not to show it, while her opportunities keep drying up. And you start to think that, for once, you might see the story of someone who DOESN'T make it in New York, who DOESN'T find herself and her place in the big city. In this way it generates the same feeling I had in the middle of Ghost World, where you're growing ever more anxious as the film continues, thinking "WHAT is going to happen to this girl?" But it's refreshing to have a film that pulls apart the "New York is SO AMAZING" cliches we're permeated with (by a media centered in New York), only, at the last minute, all those cliches are validated and we end up with a very typical, ultimately uninteresting movie.

Frances accepts a desk job she had previously seen herself as too good for. This allows her dance rehearsal space, which she uses to develop her own piece, which is attended by all her friends and acclaimed by her instructor. She moves into her own apartment and seems satisfied and comfortable in her space. Her friendship with Sophie is back on track and all her wandering and wondering is framed as a temporary period where she struggled to find herself, then ultimately did, and now everything's FINE!!! You're gonna make it after all!

So Baumbach movies always disappoint me at the end when he goes a bit soft and refuses to consign his characters to the fates they've arranged for themselves throughout the course of the film. There's always a little bit of redemption or glimmer of hope and I think they'd be much stronger without it (it also strikes me as timidity). It's not that I wish for unhappy endings, but again, the stories of those who DON'T make it in New York, who can't really make it work or adjust to the shallowness of the interpersonal relations here, are almost never told. Meanwhile the stories of those who do make it are told to the point where they are average and banal. This film pinpoints a lot of accurate contemporary social issues with young people who have grown up in a media-saturated world and how they interact in the big city, then retreats from showing any consequences and frames it all as some minor growing pains on the road to self-actualization.

Maybe I'm just a curmudgeon or a negative Nestor, but I think this would have been a haunting and indelible film if we hadn't had that glimmer of hope at the end. But since things seem to be on the happy turnaround by the end, it kind of invalidates everything that came before, or trivializes it into the slight, temporary hard time she had before she got it together. Put it this way: Ghost World blew me away and I've never forgotten it. This has already all but left my mind.

So, you know, pretty good, but again, another Baumbach film with excellent character content that's not completely focused in the end. It'll be more than fine on video.

Should you watch it: 

If you've never seen Ghost World, you should skip this and watch that. If you have, this is relatively good, not great.