Frances Ha and An Ode to Adolescence
Back in August, I watched the movie Frances Ha for the first time, and I liked it. As described by IMDB, the film follows “a young New York woman [who] apprentices for a dance company and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as the possibility of realizing them dwindles.” I find that this description of the film is not only incomprehensive, but much, much too kind. More than anything, Frances Ha is the story of a woman who sort of just…sucks. Not because she’s a remarkably bad person, but because she actually isn’t remarkable at all. And yet, in the month since I first watched the film, I’ve found myself revisiting it again and again. At the end of the month, I watched Frances Ha for the second time, and I loved it. The scenes replay in my head, Frances’ dinner monologue pervades my mind, and I continue to wonder what the artistic decision behind making the film black and white was. I don’t think a week’s gone by without me having thought about Frances, so I’ve been forced to ask myself a question: what about this movie has kept me coming back?
Before Frances Ha, I’d watched two of Greta Gerwig’s previous projects: Lady Bird, which I wasn’t a huge fan of, and Barbie, which I very much enjoyed. There’s a large part of her filmography I’ve yet to see, but what I can say from the three films I’ve seen that she’s been involved in is that Gerwig has a remarkable ability to capture a female experience in her films. I emphasize “a” here because even though the three films mentioned above are centered around women, they’re also about very different women, who lead very different lives. While I wasn’t able to enjoy Lady Bird as much as I had hoped, I’d never seen a movie that depicted a mother-daughter relationship that was so similar to the one I had with my own mother when I watched it. Barbie, meanwhile, was able to depict many of the pressures, self-imposed or otherwise, that I and many other women feel in today’s society. But nothing struck the chord for me quite like Frances Ha. When I watched the movie for the first time, it was the last film I watched as part of an all-night binge during summer vacation after Bros and Kickass. The second time was on my friend's couch after coming back to campus; it was the first movie I watched when I got here. I turn 20 in three months, and I often feel stuck in this in-between place of technically being an adult but never really feeling like one. I have a job, I do my own grocery shopping, I vote, and I feel (relatively) independent, but at the same time, I’ve never made a doctor’s appointment for myself, I still call my mom when I’m worried I’m filling out my W-2 form incorrectly, and I have absolutely no clue how to do my taxes. I don’t think I could’ve watched, or rewatched, Frances Ha at a better time.
As I said before, Frances is quite unremarkable. The larger part of the film follows Frances being presented with ordinary problems, and somehow failing to solve any of them. Her romantic relationships are unfulfilling, she’s unsatisfied in a career that doesn’t provide her with enough money to live, she’s totally dependent on her best friend Sophie, and even though she doesn’t have enough money to pay her rent, she spends the little money she does have on a two-day trip to Paris. Frances is lost, irresponsible, codependent, and so, so normal. Speaking for myself, I couldn’t imagine spending the money I currently make from my part-time job on a weekend trip to Europe. That said, Frances’ desire to make something of herself without actually knowing who “herself” is is so pertinent to young people. One of the lines that stood out to me the most happens early in the film while Frances is having dinner with her new friend Lev. Frances offers to cover dinner because she just got paid, but the waitress tells her that she can’t use her debit card. Frances turns to Lev and says “I’m so embarrassed, I’m not even a real person yet.” Each time I’ve watched the movie this line seems to come out of nowhere, but I don’t think it’s as random as I previously thought. Frances is unsatisfied with what she's doing at the dance company, so the only meaningful thing that her work is able to provide for her is money. But by the time her card is declined at the end of that dinner, two things have become very clear to her: her miserable job does not provide her with enough money to live, and it doesn’t provide her with enough money to entertain herself or her friends. For Frances, I think being able to pay for dinner was her chance to prove to herself that she was in control of her life, which couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, she’s just floating around, being miserable for the sake of it. She’s not a “real” person.
So many people, young or otherwise, are afraid of being unremarkable because we equate uniqueness and value. I’m guilty of this myself. We believe that, if we could only be a little bit more special, more talented, more original, it’d mean that we “succeeded.” And yet, for as much as I’d convinced myself that exceptionalism was a virtue, I watched a woman be the furthest thing from exceptional for 90 minutes three times, and I absolutely loved it. It’s difficult for me to recommend this movie to people because I’m not quite sure how to summarize it in a way that sounds compelling. To me, Frances Ha feels like a snapshot of a person’s life. It’s well-acted, well-written, and funny, but more than that, it’s real. Having said that, this story wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of the very talented director Noah Baumbach and his co-writer Greta Gerwig, and while I do think exceptionality should be pursued, it should be used as a goal to reach rather than a measure of our worth. As entertaining as watching remarkable people on screen can be, I think films like Frances Ha, seemingly “ordinary” films, ground us in a way that nothing else can. So, if you’re in the middle of a quarter-life crisis, I’d like to remind you that mediocrity is not a death-sentence, but a jumping off point—and go watch Frances Ha.