Frances Ha is the product of the writing partnership between Noah Baumbach (The Squid and The Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg) and Greta Gerwig (To Rome with Love, Greenberg, Damsels in Distress), the latter playing the eponymous Frances. Often ascribed to the New Wave genre with references to Truffaut becoming almost obligatory in its reviews, the film arguably requires more careful appreciation beyond its Brooklyn indie scene taxonomy.
In brief, Frances Ha is set in New York and chronicles the transition of the late-20s Frances from an apprentice dance student, living with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) to unemployed and nigh on homeless (the film is punctuated by her multiple addresses as she relies on friends for accommodation). Notwithstanding the tangible effects of Frances’ unemployment, the most profound transition that she has to endure is the changing status of her hitherto inseparable relationship with Sophie, triggered by the latter’s developing relationship with her boyfriend (as Sophie and her boyfriend become closer she is increasingly estranged from Frances). Frances, lost in the city without her best friend, finds herself returning to the dance school where she and Sophie first met where, unable to simply reclaim her childhood friendship, she is forced to accept the reality and permanence of the changes that she is now facing.
It is the relationship between Frances and Sophie that lies at, and indeed provides, the heart of the film. Refreshingly free from the usual focus on the heroine’s romantic relationship (the film steadfastly resists the cliché of Frances finding a love interest to alleviate her woes), the film instead provides a rare insight into the complex and utterly fundamental relationship between a girl and her best friend. With acute delicacy, the film develops its core theme of ‘transition’ by documenting the profound pain and deeply destabilising impact that the change in this relationship causes. As the friends’ relationship becomes more distant (both literally and figuratively) we see Frances forced to discover a new path and grapple with the awareness that her friendship with Sophie will never be the same again. Understanding this transformation, the question for Frances is whether she can accept the transition of her friendship or whether it will be lost to her forever.
The film grants access to Frances’ journey by allowing the title character to say what she thinks and, moreover, feels completely free from censorship. In doing so, Frances is able to articulate the incredible loss that she experiences as her most important relationship transforms (contrast this to the breakdown of her romantic relationship in the opening scene, something that she is able to compartmentalise with much greater ease). However, this unrestrained verbosity is also the mechanism by which the film can divide audiences. It is, perhaps, a fair challenge to question what exactly it is that Frances and her idiosyncratic ways have to be concerned about. She is, after all, pursuing her dream in the city that she loves. However, the film is as much a journey for its audience as it is for Frances. As her story develops so does your empathy for her, thanks in no small part to Greta Gerwig’s skilful portrayal of this oft-neglected relationship.
The film depicts a subtle and nuanced observation of a real, human relationship; there is no grand finale in which multiple plot twists are revealed and resolved. However, what it does deliver is a film that quietly stays with you beyond its immediate run time and encourages you to reflect on your own relationships and how you respond to them.
A Few Film Facts:
This story of late 20-something women in Brooklyn, the casting of Adam Driver and the friendship between Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham, has resulted in inevitable comparisons to Dunham’s Girls. However, the comparison is somewhat unfair, not least because Frances Ha was shot before Girls aired.
Frances’ parents in the film are in fact played by Greta’s folks in real life.
The film came to fruition organically, by Noah and Greta emailing each other to discuss the plot, the latter sharing her experiences of living in New York.