Monday, June 3, 2013

Frances Ha

By Noah Baumbach

            I have seen two films in my entire life, that I recall, that have beautifully and accurately captured the experience and feelings of being a young woman involved in deep female friendships.  One is Mike Leigh’s 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky.  The other, I have just had the pleasure of viewing – Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha.  That is not to say that either of the films are melodramatic, saccharine, or any of the adjectives typically associated with women’s pictures, chick flicks, and the like.  In fact, far from it.  Frances Ha is a frequently bleak and uncomfortable look into the life of a young dancer living in New York City hoping to make it big.  The film establishes her long-lasting best friendship with her roommate Sophie, and it follows her as she frequently fails in the workplace, in romance, and even in social situations, while still trying to gain a sense of dignity and purpose in her life.
            Although there are many things that are remarkable in this little film, several stand out.  Greta Gerwig’s performance as the title character is absolutely incredible. She embodies this character completely – the slight awkwardness, the nervous word vomiting, the uninhibited silliness that is somehow still just a little self-conscious – everything that makes Frances both lovable and annoying.  She co-wrote the script and reportedly did a lot of improvising on set; not surprising considering how natural the performance is.  The writing itself is also outstanding – capturing little things this group of New Yorkers say to one another without feeling twee or trying too hard.  It is a wonderful film, and one that captured my heart and allowed me to identify so much with its main character, not because we share similar worldviews or personalities, but because she is so well drawn that it is impossible not to see some part of your own neuroses and fears in her.

***1/2 out of ****

            Character studies have an unfortunate tendency to be self-indulgent.  As they rely heavily on the allure of the personalities they study, it is far too easy for such films to force viewers to sit through boring hours spent examining people with little nuance or charisma.  With Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach avoids such pitfalls by providing not only a magnetic and eccentric protagonist, but also fully fleshed relationships from which this character can reluctantly face her faults and search for meaning.  And while that may seem trite, the film never feels forced, allowing the story to flow organically from the mistakes of its characters while never resorting to crass moral preaching.  There is never a moment in which you feel Baumbach (or co-writer/lead actress Greta Gerwig) feel anything but deep affection and care for their creation – she is a mess, but a wonderful, vibrant, and believable mess.

Almost roomies.
             More than anything, I was impressed by the way the film captured the postmodern drift of my own “millennial” generation.  With so much of American culture telling us we could be anything we want, many 20-somethings will certainly empathize strongly with the resistance of Frances in facing her own shortcomings. This is more than an overdue coming of age story; it is a touching and affecting portrait of our times.

A strong ***½ out of ****

            Beautifully put that it is a portrait of our times; I agree, one hundred percent.  With that in mind, I found it interesting that much of the dialogue is extremely frank in its depiction of sexuality, while never once showing a sex scene.  I found it honest in a lot of ways, never resorting to showing something sensationalistic or exploitative.  In addition, some of the male characters are seen parading their one night stands through the apartment while others are there, knowing clearly they are fully aware of what went on behind closed doors.  None of the characters are phased by this and I thought that was interesting and a reflection of the relaxed attitudes about sex of our times.  What did you think?

Frances is "undatable."
            One of the motifs of the film is Frances labeling herself as “undatable,” and I think this motif points to why Baumbach and Gerwig wisely opted out of any overt sexual depictions; this is not what the film was about.  While an honest depiction of sexuality could have further developed Frances’s insecurities, the film takes strides to portray her as someone who keeps men at a distance.  I found this to be a daring move, as stories of sexual exploration or dysfunction are both difficult to execute with proper complexity and are attempted (and failed) far too often.  It is a far more rare for a film to tell the story of someone who finds men to be unrelatable and sex to be blasé.  Indeed, Frances seems to get more joy from her time with Sophie gossiping about the habits of the men they have been with than the actual sexual experiences she has had.
            Which, I suppose, is why I appreciated the frank depiction of sexual discourse.  In a world in which sex is something people do simply for amusement or to boost their own sense of pride, it is not surprising that the act also could become commonplace and uninteresting.  There is a brilliant scene in which Frances and one of two male roommates are platonically zoning out to a movie and their other roommate nonchalantly brings home yet another hook-up.  The juxtaposition of movie viewing and sex as parallel hobbies is stark and insightful.  For Frances, watching a movie is simply a far less complicated hobby to add into her own discombobulated life.  Once again, the film manages to capture our times, critiquing some unfortunate results of postmodern life without the taint of ego or judgment.
            Another critique the film has of modern friendships is their inherent competitiveness.  This is a big theme of the film, as though Frances loves Sophie deeply, she is plagued by constantly comparing herself to Sophie’s successes.  This brings about much of the conflict central to the film’s story.  I am curious – what did you think of this aspect of the film?

            Unsurprisingly, I loved this exploration of competition in friendship, specifically in how it occurs in female friendship.  I found it all too familiar, as this frequently affects the dynamics of my own friendships.  I think a specifically interesting moment was one pivotal scene in which (*SPOILER*) Sophie confesses to feeling this competition between herself and Frances, but due to her own pride, Frances denies having ever felt that way; despite the fact that the whole film details just the opposite.  In fact, this competition nearly ruins their beautiful relationship, and it is only after this confession that Frances is able to allow their friendship to flourish once again.
Let's fight.  For realsies.
            I found it true to life and honest.  For some odd reason, female friendships are frequently held up by a sense of competition – even if the women are in different careers, have different personalities, and are happily attached to different men.  There is no real reason for competition to exist, and yet it does, ruining so many relationships and stopping others from the get-go.  I thought this film captured this tragic reality well.
            As a final note, I was struck by the sequence of Frances going back home for Christmas.  I thought it was particularly poignant – what did you think?

            The Christmas sequence was one of the most touching for me, as I personally identified with it from my own past.  As the film allows Frances to pit personal ambition against the reassurance of loving community, the sequence nicely communicated both the deep emotions that come from the unconditional love of close family and the personal pride that stops many from admitting their need for such comforting encouragement.  For those with loving families, homesickness is all too common, especially when things “out there” turn sour.  What the film ultimately relays is that it is not the goals or successes of our lives that define us, but the people who love and shape us along the way.  The film takes time to remind us that if we neglect this truth, the result is a cold and desperate dissatisfaction.  The fact that the film slowly and patiently braves this lonely territory is a testament to its sincerity, for it makes the contrasting joys of its story both authentic and subtly powerful.  Ultimately, it is far better to accept our failures while drawing strength from loving relationships to move forward and find joy in developing and pursuing new aspirations.

Two-as-One Rating: ***½ out of ****

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