After a preview screening of the quietly instructive and often amusing new movie Frances Ha, I was chatting with someone who told me that he was about to attend the college graduation of a nephew, and that the young man had absolutely no idea about what to do with with the rest of his life.
That’s hardly a revelation. A sagging economy has taken much of the luster off the American dream, and many young people seem to spend their 20s marking time, hoping that something — anything — will come along and catapult them into adulthood.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Frances Ha is the story of one such (you’ll pardon the term) millennial. The 27-year-old Frances (Greta Gerwig) has been living in a post-college limbo for as much as six or seven years, and her dream is on the verge of foundering. An aspiring dancer, Frances seems a little short on talent, and she’s about to lose her position with a small dance company.
Frances’ social life doesn’t provide much relief, either. Her most enduring relationship is with her roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). The two have been close friends since college. In an early scene, Frances turns down an offer to live with her boyfriend because she’s happy in the Brooklyn apartment she and Sophie share.
The catch: Sophie — who works for a publishing company — seems to have had her fill of impromptu living. She’s planning to move into a Manhattan apartment. Not long after her departure, Sophie meets a man, and decides to have a serious relationship. She tells Frances that she’s moving to Japan, where her new beau has been offered a major career opportunity.
Absent her roommate and confidant, Frances is in a place that can seem a little scary: She’s officially and undeniably at loose ends.
Directed by Noah Baumbach (Greeenberg and The Squid and the Whale), Frances Ha would have been impossible without Gerwig, who gives Frances a galumphing walk and a large ration of naive charm. In Gerwig’s hands, Frances becomes an amusing and even touching study of awkwardness, the unease that stems from not fitting in to much of anything — maybe even her own body.
After losing her roommate, Frances devotes substantial amounts of time to securing new quarters. She moves in with two men (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen), who charge her close to $1,000 a month for the privilege of sharing their space.
The movie also takes Frances to California, where she visits her parents, played by Gerwig’s real parents (Christine and Gordon Gerwig).
Baumbach, who chose to shoot in refreshing black-and-white, makes room for a lonely Parisian interlude and a trip back to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., scene of Frances’ college days.
Here’s how I understand Frances. She was one of those kids who was raised by encouraging, middle-class parents who most likely supported her dream of being a professional dancer, but who never bothered to wonder whether Frances had sufficient talent for such a demanding and capricious path. She attended a good college, made friends and then moved to New York City, where she and Sophie became co-conspirators in all things.
I don’t know if Baumbach hoped that Francis Ha would serve as a generational portrait or whether he simply wanted to introduce us to a character who grows on us, as Gerwig allows her comic abilities to blossom.
Even without giving it any larger meanings, Frances Ha has its rewards, most of them involving Gerwig’s performance. At one point, Frances says that she’s not yet a real person, her way of telling us that she’s unable to make the transition into a settled adulthood. She’s aware enough to know that her life isn’t turning out as she might have imagined.
It’s doubtful that Frances would see herself a representative of her generation, but I’m betting that she has plenty of company among those who currently are stuck in shapeless, ill-defined lives, unsure that they’ll ever be able to move on.
Baumbach’s movie doesn’t entirely transform Frances’ life, but it suggests that one way or another, she’ll adapt. Gerwig may not be what you’d call a conventional screen presence, but she makes us believe that Sophie won’t be defeated.