The easy knock on Noah Baumbach would be to say that he’s spent 17 years as a filmmaker circling around to the same place. In his charming 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach explored the lives of urban 20-somethings fumbling with what it means to be a grown-up. Now, Baumbach is in his 40s, but with Frances Ha, he’s back in the world of young adults for whom the “adult” part is in name only. How ironic: Baumbach keeps trying to push his characters out of literal or emotional adolescence, only he can’t seem to escape it himself.
Yes, it’s an easy knock. Inconveniently, it also happens to be completely wrong. Because while Frances Ha nominally revisits similar territory as Kicking and Screaming, it’s also a way to look at how the world has changed for that demographic over the intervening years. And he does so through the life of one fairly irresistible character.
Her name is Frances Halliday (Greta Gerwig), a 27-year-old sharing a New York apartment with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), while trying to carve out a career as a professional dancer beyond serving as an understudy for a financially struggling company. But the small amount of stability offered by her life with Sophie disappears when Sophie decides to move out—just after Frances has broken up with her boyfriend—leaving Frances bouncing from one makeshift living situation to another.
Her various couch-hopping stops form the de facto chapters of Frances Ha, and through them Baumbach and Gerwig (who also co-wrote the script) capture the perpetually unsettled lives of people who keep dreaming big even when economic realities tell them it’s time to rethink their plans. It’s a life where few things are more thrilling than the arrival of a tax-refund check that allows you to go out to dinner, and where one of Frances’ temporary roommates (Michael Zegen) is an aspiring writer whose current project is “a sample script for the third Gremlins.” As Frances begins what seems like a backward slide—including holidays with her parents in California (played by Gerwig’s real-life parents) and living in a dorm at her former college while serving as a summer program resident assistant—it’s easy for people to start comparing Frances to her peers as looking “a lot older, but less grown-up.”
That kind of a character might easily become insufferable as a paradigm of a “why isn’t everything in my life instantly gratifying” generation, but Gerwig’s performance is too effervescent for that to happen. And she’s not just a collection of adorkable quirky-girl tics, like her insistence on paying for a dinner date that has her dashing through the streets looking for an ATM when her credit card is declined, or a gleeful dance-run to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” As the friends around Frances make various life-leaps before her—into more stable jobs or more stable romantic relationships—Gerwig captures a kind of wistful loneliness, trying to cling to the emotional security of happy-go-lucky life as it was; it’s both hilarious and sad when Frances tries to duplicate the goofy slap-fights she used to share with Sophie with a new roommate, who is completely uninterested in playing along. When she tells some friends with whom she’s hanging out “I should go,” Gerwig does it in a way that makes it clear all she wants is to be told that she doesn’t have to.
There’s a terrific scene at a dinner party, where Frances finds herself interacting with, among others, a couple who have just had their first baby; they intone familiar platitudes about how much they’re learning from having to sacrifice their desires to the needs of the child. It seems like no coincidence, though, that the new father is played by Josh Hamilton—who played the fumbling 20-something protagonist of Kicking and Screaming. In a sense, that scene feels like a torch being passed, a nod to the fact that tumultuous post-adolescence eventually ends and we all eventually figure “it” out.
Frances Ha is funny and compassionate about that time of uncertainty without being indulgent, allowing us to see that every generation faces a different set of obstacles on the way to learning what it means to be a grown-up.
Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner