It’s interesting to see how the economic collapse can affect a filmmaker like Noah Baumbach. He’s built his career on exploring the lives of disappointed and disaffected post-college intellectuals, who are either endearingly jobless or inhabiting the sort of position that never involves much true stress or responsibility, like professors or artists of various shapes and sizes. These jobs and people still exist in the current climate, but their grip is more tenuous, and the ability to flit around in the sort of Kicking and Screaming phase has less resonance now than it did in the 90’s or early 2000’s.
Frances Ha seems to be Baumbach and Gerwig’s answer to this harsher environment; Greta Gerwig’s titular main character still flits through life in a very Baumbachian way, but it feels different this time. Her bohemian vocation of choice is dancer, though she isn’t particularly good at it, which changes the game a bit. The story follows Frances as she attempts to keep her life together when her roommate and best friend Sophie (she refers to them as the same person with different hair) decides to move to a better part of town. With no job, no income and no apartment to call her own, Frances moves from address to address (complete with a title card for each major move) trying to cement herself into some kind of life without actually giving up her dreams or trying particularly hard, as impractical and unlikely they may be.
The character of Frances could easily have been a whiny, entitled Millennial mess, bullheaded and confrontational in her attitude, expecting everything she wants to just happen to her automatically. It wouldn’t exactly be out of the ordinary for Baumbach to write a character like that; he has a pretty long history of filling his screenplays with abrasive characters who may be magnetic and compelling (and gifted in their speech) on screen, but also aren’t exactly the nicest people you’d want to share a conversation with in real life. But Greta Gerwig doesn’t work that way. The Frances we get (a collaboration between Gerwig, who co-writes, and Baumbach) is a little less manic pixie and a little more real life, and while she never entirely loses her indie quirk (the film is filled with lines like “You know what Virginia Woolf book this reminds me of…?”), it’s almost refreshing to see the real world assert itself over her as her social safety net is dismantled. She’s the type of person who will charge an unnecessary (and essentially fruitless) two-day trip to Paris on a brand new credit card she knows she can’t pay off, and despite this, you never feel like she’s a complete flake. Still, barely anything really gets to her, from the Paris trip to a return home to an exile to her old college for an RA gig that gives her a free room for a bit. Anything to survive (other that actually getting a job she would consider below her). It can be maddening at times as Gerwig obstinately persists to stay in neutral, but she does it with a smile and a wave and a dance to Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and it’s so difficult to deny her.
Frances Ha isn’t necessarily going to get at any deep truths. It does allude to the troubles that liberal, artistic Millennials may face in the modern world. These days, it’s more and more difficult to watch a film like Kicking and Screaming and expect to wallow in the same sort of post-college responsibility-free haze as you hope to have inspiration find you instead of the other way around. What is clear is that it’s thoroughly witty, at times deeply funny and wonderfully casual in its slice-of-life look at a girl who should probably have a little more ambition than she does. This is Woody Allen for the slacker generation (though, I guess you could rightly make the claim that Woody Allen was Woody Allen for the slacker generation), offering something similar to the classics like Annie Hall or Manhattan, and at the same time feeling more present and vital than Midnight in Paris or Blue Jasmine. It is entirely on the shoulders of Gerwig to make it all work, which she handles with confidence and aplomb. Her relationship with Sophie is especially well-drawn, playing out almost like your standard romantic relationship despite theirs being a purely platonic love. It’s fascinating and dynamic, and gives you just that depth of character that serves as a wonderful through-line and foundation for Gerwig’s wackiness. This one shouldn’t be missed.