When people talk about the strengths of HBO’s Girls, they tend to mention how relatable and real it is. I enjoy that show, but I don’t see a lot of myself in it besides the sporadic human truths that punctuate these never unclever, coddled existences. Noah Baumbach’s seventh film, Frances Ha (opening this week) is similar in its focus—Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote the script) plays Frances, a 27-year-old dancer who lives in New York. Watching her struggle to eat while feeding her creative impulses and flailing to assert an identity while not quite fully formed as a secure human being felt like a trip back home to me.
It was the same kind of trip home that Frances takes toward the end of the movie—enjoyable and mildly melancholy for being so. Frances Ha is not a sad movie. It's often howlingly funny, though what felt more satisfying were the moments of subtle realness, like when Frances dashes out of a cash-only restaurant to find an ATM. Once in front of it she contemplates the $3 surcharge—her head tips back and forth like a scale as she weighs the cost. That is what you do when you are charged exorbitantly for nothing. Only in New York, kids.
Frances Ha has been compared to Truffaut and to Woody Allen’s Manhattan (it is, after all, in black and white), but what it mostly reminded me of was Annie Hall. Granted, the film’s key romance is platonic and occurs between Frances and her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), whose life progress drives a stake through her and Frances' friendship. Granted, it’s missing the creepy older guy who’s on screen to usher your adoration of the woman at the center of the movie. Frances Ha doesn’t need either of those things—the orchestrated affection for this character from higher up is implicit throughout. Watching, I thought, “Baumbach has tremendous empathy for Frances.” And then I went back and read the recent, sprawling New Yorker profile on him and discovered that he and Gerwig are dating, and furthermore, according to Baumbach:
It always felt important that Frances get a victory and be protected in the movie, and I’m sure on some level it was because I wanted to protect Greta.
He also revealed that this movie was devised to "showcase" Gerwig's "old studio-system chops." The success of this movie depends on whether you find Frances’ half-high smart-goofy manner charming. I saw the mannerisms of a lot of women that I know and love in her, and so I did.
The person that I watched the movie with did not. He is almost 30 and has the kind of success that people would do awful, inhuman things for a fraction of. He is one of the few true eccentrics that I know, and unconsciously so. He moves on a different vibration and often responds in non sequiturs to what I think are straightforward questions and observations, when he bothers to respond at all. He’s only going to get weirder, too, if aging does its usual tricks. I adore him. Perhaps I’ll figure out a way to one day rhapsodize him, to package him (or a character like him) as handsomely as Baumbach has packaged Frances/Gerwig. I explained to him that the kind of struggle at the center of Frances Ha—that horrifying gnawing of not being able to pay your rent while you’re out being distracted by all the fun that’s sucking up your money, while knowing that you have so much to offer the oblivious world—was foreign to him. His good fortune came early; he didn’t even have a brief, teenage Mariah Carey-esque girl-with-one-shoe struggle.
He disagreed, but with characteristic vagueness before getting distracted by some flickering Times Square lights. A bit later, I realized that by the time Baumbach was 27, Frances’ age, he had directed two movies, including the career-making Kicking and Screaming. Despite characterizing himself as "agonized" by 1997, Baumbach was no Frances, either, but I guess some people just get it.