Sunday, June 23, 2013

Aimless in New York

Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner in Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's Frances Ha (2013) is a portrait of post-college/pre-rest of your life anomie. Anyone who has drifted through an aimless couple of years after college will recognize themselves in Frances Handley, though I imagine that most people who have gone through this kind of coming of age aren't the same kind of fuck-up. As quirky and occasionally sweet-tempered as this film is, it's a profoundly melancholy film, an effect compounded by its moody black and white cinematography.

The story here follows roommates and best friends Frances and Sophia. Sophia is in the process of growing out of her post-college aimlessness, and when she decides to move into a more upscale apartment with another roommate, it leaves Frances adrift. Subsequently, she moves in with two guys she meets at a party, kinda sorta forming a relationship with each of them, but keeping it strictly platonic. Frances is a dancer and would-be choreographer. She's on the margins of a dance company, and when she fails to make the cut for a Christmas performance, she doesn't have the money to say where she is. So she heads home for the holidays, then back to New York where she couch surfs for a while. At a party, she's offered the use of an apartment in Paris if she's ever there, so she chooses to take a weekend there even though it's foolhardy to do so. Then back to New York where she's ousted from the dance company, and then rock bottom at her alma mater in Poughkeepsie. Meanwhile, she's growing apart from Sophie, who has found a boyfriend and moved to Japan with him. Their paths intercept at a political dinner where Frances has been tasked with "watching" a congresswoman and where Sophie is in full-on meltdown with her now-fiance...

Greta Gerwig, Michael Zegen, and Adam Driver in Frances Ha

Frances Ha is a film that made me more than a little uncomfortable, in part because it connects with my own aimlessness when it comes to finding some kind of life to live, but also because a good deal of its humor tends to humiliate the hapless Frances. Some of this is a bit too precious to take seriously, though Greta Gerwig manages to sell that preciousness with the persistent look of panic on her face, over-layered over most of her other emotions. Gerwig is good, but the script does her no favors. Since she co-wrote the script, she has some culpability in this, I guess.

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

There's an interesting sense of millennial unease here. This is a film that's more desperate than similar films from the past, given the shrinking horizons of twenty-somethings in the contemporary economy. There is no safety net for Frances, even in the liberal bastion of New York City. This is a surprisingly asexual movie, too, but that seems right for the characters. That Benjy and Lev, Frances's roommates for a while, tease her for being "un-datable" should key in the audience that this isn't a film about romance, in so far as BFF relationships aren't romances in the traditional sense. Still, a huge part of the narrative arc of this film is about the love between Frances and Sophia, a relationship the characters themselves describe as like being lesbians without having sex. Both of these characters are struggling to find their adult lives. Both of them are making huge mistakes at the expense of their friendship. I'm not sure which of them arrives at a healthier life. Frances, I suspect, given that she realizes her artistic ambition by the end of the movie, and more importantly, arrives at a room of her own. That's some kind of talisman even above the literary reference it suggests.

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