In Noah Baumbach’s simultaneously laidback, charming and astute 2012 black-and-white comedy-drama Frances Ha, it’s easy to lose count of the number of times that aspiring dancer Frances (Greta Gerwig) makes a self-deprecating remark. Usually delivered with a breezy smile that could light up a room – and packaged with a blend of perceptiveness and awkwardness, too – the struggling New Yorker constantly takes aim at her own lack of maturity, as judged against her peers, her dreams and how she thinks her life should be tracking at the age of 27.
“I’m so embarrassed, I’m not a real person yet,” Frances tells her friend Lev (Adam Driver) when she shouts him dinner after receiving an unexpected tax refund. The restaurant they’re eating at only accepts cash or credit and, when it comes time to pay, she has neither. So, as Lev waits, Frances runs around the neighbourhood trying to find an ATM, all so she can make good on her promise. When she finally locates a machine, she also has to decide whether she’s willing to pay the withdrawal fee – while she has just come into some money, every cent still matters.
To her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) – the person she’s talking about when she tells everyone else they know that they’re “the same person with different hair” – Frances is always explaining the trail of clutter that she frequently leaves in her wake. “I’m not messy, I’m busy,” becomes her catch-cry, as trotted out about the casserole dish left in the sink for three days and the clothes strewn around her bedroom.
When Sophie moves out of their shared Brooklyn apartment to live on her favourite street in Tribeca, forcing Frances to move in with Lev and another pal, Benji (Michael Zegen), the same excuse still echoes through her new Chinatown flat. Fresh digs, familiar chaos, same explanation.
The examples go on. In another instance, after a dance performance at the company where Frances is an apprentice – and desperately hoping to be accepted into the main troupe, or even its touring group – she tells her boss Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise) that she has trouble leaving places. Frances is referring to the fact that, as she slowly gets changed at her own leisurely pace, she’s the last dancer left backstage. When Colleen informs her that she won’t be getting the Christmas show gig she’s been counting on, however, Frances’ latest self-directed comment rings with truth on many levels.
Co-written by Gerwig and Baumbach, Frances Ha isn’t just littered with these moments, but stitched from them. They’re the thread that binds the film together, with each vignette from Frances’ life adding to a broader portrait of the character’s ongoing stream of quarter-life crises.
Frances gets envious of Sophie’s increasingly serious relationship with her boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger), feeling as though her best friend is leaving her behind. She makes plans to spend her Sundays running errands, but ends up hanging around her apartment with Lev and Benji doing nothing.
After Colleen’s announcement, she heads home to Sacramento, where her mother helps her attend to all the chores she has obviously been ignoring, such as shopping for clothes and going to the dentist. Following a dinner party with friends of the dancer acquaintance (Grace Gummer) Frances stays with after returning to New York, she blows her credit card balance on a whirlwind, spur-of-the-moment trip to Paris that she proceeds to largely sleep through.
Collaborating behind the scenes for the first time after Gerwig previously starred in Baumbach’s Greenberg, the pair fill Frances Ha with these relatable and realistic yet still amusing and unpredictable events and challenges faced by the irrepressible Frances – the kind of incidents and altercations that, from failing to secure your dream job, to hopping between places to live, to just generally feeling like you’re treading water rather than moving forward, all resound with familiarity.
Nothing about Frances Ha fits an easy, clear-cut template, but everything about the character’s experiences feels as though it has been ripped from the lives of every twenty-something who has taken stock of their progress through adulthood and found it wanting (and every twenty-something who hasn’t yet reached that stage as well).
That’s the melancholy joy of Baumbach and Gerwig’s feature, which charts Frances’ ups and downs with an abundance of knowing insight but completely without judgement. Its protagonist might be nearing her thirties (“27 is old, though,” Benji tells her), but this is her coming-of-age story. When the film begins, she’s happy play-fighting in the park with Sophie – playing at something rather than actually making a concrete leap forward, which is one of the movie’s recurring themes. It takes time, ample uncertainty and even regressing back to working at her old college over the summer, but eventually she spies a way forward.
Of course, Frances Ha isn’t alone in charting a character’s attempts to navigate this trajectory, with adults in various states of arrested development so common on-screen that the quarter-life crisis narrative has become its own genre (see: The Graduate, Reality Bites, Garden State, Girls, Silver Linings Playbook and Baumbach’s own aforementioned Greenberg, just to name a few).
What resonates about Frances, though, is how shrewdly yet naturalistically fleshed out every facet of her experience is. And, with kudos to luminous but still earthy Gerwig, how Frances herself also earns that description. She’s likeable, kind-hearted, fiercely loyal and endlessly engaging, but still wears her flaws on her sleeve as everyone does.
Sometimes she’s the dutiful friend holding Sophie’s hair back while she throws up, and sometimes she’s throwing tantrums because she’s not getting her own way – or hogging conversations with people she’s just met by spewing out irrelevant details about college friends they don’t know.
In other words, Frances is the sum of her best and worst impulses. All characters should be, but Frances is allowed to be – and that’s crucial. Hers is the ideal quarter-life crisis tale because it realises, acknowledges and accepts that the bright spots, disappointing moments and constant waves of uncertainty all exist on the same continuum. Twirling down the street can feel like the most normal thing in the world one day, and then you can fall flat on your face can the next, because that’s the messy chaos of Frances’ existence, and everyone’s.
It helps immensely that, while Frances Ha is a poised and polished affair from start to finish – and shot with a grainy gloss that only black-and-white image can convey – Baumbach also weaves the film together in a patchwork fashion.
In its style and episodic construction, the movie itself is the perfect overall embodiment of what Frances is striving for, even if she doesn’t always know it: a jumble of different elements that all twist in their own directions, yet still fit nicely together.
With his monochrome colour scheme, Baumbach takes overt inspiration from the French New Wave and the New York-set oeuvre of Woody Allen. With their light but still sharp, amusing yet always thoughtful tone and sense of humour, his and Gerwig’s script does also.
Baumbach borrows important soundtrack cues from elsewhere, too, including Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which Frances and Benji watch during the film. Music from Truffaut’s Bed & Board and A Gorgeous Girl Like Me also pops up, as do refrains from Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. When Frances runs down the street to David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’, she performs an entire sequence from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang.
Combined, however, all of the above make up the wonder that is Frances Ha and offer a pivotal quarter-life crisis reminder that, for movies, people and lives alike, cobbling together various parts isn’t just an interim solution, but natural and normal.
Frances Ha is now streaming at SBS On Demand: