Hope Stumbles Eternal: “Frances Ha”

The director of The Squid and the Whale made a movie with the star of Damsels in Distress, and it’s about friendship between women, forgiveness, and coming to terms with your life. Ordinarily this is the kind of sentence I end with, “…and then I woke up.” But no! Frances Ha is real, it’s in DC at E St Cinema and Bethesda Row, and it is a really good, small slice-of-life movie. I don’t know that it’s earthshaking but it is about two hours of Greta Gerwig being thoroughly luminous, with her big beautiful embarrassed-scared-hopeful face all over the camera, and it made me really happy.

The story follows Frances, an aspiring dancer, as she struggles to live in New York City with her hipsterish, wealthy, also-aspiring-things-rather-than-actual-things friends. She fights with her best friend Sophie, she fails to get a boyfriend, she slips a few rungs down the career ladder, she moves a lot.

There are some sharp cultural points: The separation of sex and love keeps the characters drifting, in a very Walker Percy way. They sometimes seek self-improvement and try to work their way into adulthood–Frances especially does this–without any obvious moral guidance and little mentoring. They ironically use the language of marriage over and over to describe their same-sex friendships (and–once, because that language turns out not to really work here, an opposite-sex friendship), and unironically use the language of love for the same relationships. Both biology and culture, in this movie as in life, make relationships between men and women uniquely tricky. Both sex as in gender, and sex as in… you know… sex, make a big difference. But the movie takes the difficulties of friendship seriously too: jealousy, clinginess, hurt pride, judgmentalism, financial differences and the turning wheel of fortune, realizing that you and your best friend are totally different people with different values and different choices to make. Frances says several times that she and Sophie are “the same person, but with different hair,” even as that cute grade-school BFF talk gets increasingly obviously false. Once you’ve realized that friendship isn’t easy anymore, can you still hold onto it? Do you even want to?

Frances herself is just a beautiful character. You get how she can be exasperating. She’s impulsive, she lets her dreams consume and threaten her real life, she’s awkward in a way which can come across as self-centered and idealistic in a way which can come across as entitled. She’s too much, consistently. But she’s also just a joy to be around. When she drunkenly pours out her heart–in terms which kicked me around a little bit in the way that they echoed the concerns of this post–I felt like the movie had been made just for me.

Are there flaws? Victor Morton thinks the ending is unearned. I disagree; Frances was trying hard to grow up throughout the movie, so it makes sense to me that she started to figure a few things out. You see her do the spadework. The actions he sees as establishing a pattern of self-defeat, I see as experiences she managed to learn from. I do want to know why the heck the movie is in black and white. Is color being rationed for the war effort? Why are things suddenly in black and white all the time? That said, Frances Ha confirms my interest in seeing more from Baumbach, and basically convinces me that Gerwig (who co-wrote) can do no wrong. I would watch her try to work up her courage to read the phone book.

Also, one of the tags I use all the time is used–and meant, in a certain sense–in the movie. You can find it below!

ETA: You know, I especially liked how the movie handled the conflict between Frances and Sophie’s boyfriend. It let Frances make some really bad decisions due to her love/need for her friend, but it never denigrated the love or even the need. There’s a comedy-of-remarriage vibe, a plotline of rediscovering the place you’ve been and knowing it for the first time, knowing it better.

About Eve Tushnet