FRANCES HA Review: It’s Not the Destination, It’s the Journey
It’s rare that I go into a film without knowing at least something about it. Even when I watch a film I haven’t heard of before (generation Um, for example), I do at least a little homework to understand what I’m about to get into. It’s a delicate balance, of course, because too much information might send me into a film with too much preconception or, in a worst-case scenario, with spoilers having been, well, spoiled.
So when the chatter about writer/director Noah Baumbach‘s Frances Ha spiked on social media, I knew it was something I thought I should see for myself. But the beginning of the IMDb summary, as written by IFC Films, left me with more questions than answers:
Frances lives in New York, but she doesn’t really have an apartment. Frances is an apprentice for a dance company, but she’s not really a dancer. Frances has a best friend named Sophie, but they aren’t really speaking anymore.
Its clarity doesn’t improve much from there, so surely you see what I mean. With a description like that and without a mega-star in the cast, I ventured to a theater some 55 miles from home (the closest screening, for the record) with only Twitter buzz to rely on.
Twitter did not let me down.
Frances Ha is charming, endearing, and one the most genuine movies I’ve seen in some time.
Co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig stars as Frances, an aspiring dancer living in New York City with her roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). There is clearly a close friendship between them, as opposed to one of those roommate situations where the cohabitants are either complete strangers or friends of friends. Their conversation is intimate, as is their physical comfort with one another. This is evidenced in a scene in the opening minutes of the film where the two are watching a movie together in bed and when Frances falls asleep, Sophie suggests Frances simply sleep there; it doesn’t happen, but for nothing other than practical reasons. There is nothing titillating about the scene, which is what makes it so warm; these are two women who are intimate but not sexual. In fact, Frances even says, “The coffee people are right, we are like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore.” This strikes me as the kind of statement that two old, dear girlfriends can relate to.
It’s that intimacy that drives what happens next, and what happens next after that. Frances’ boyfriend, Dan (Michael Esper), suggests the two move in together. Frances is reluctant, citing her commitment to Sophie that the two women would live together until at least the end of their lease (although you sense separation anxiety from Frances). Dan thinks this is something that can be worked around, but Frances is adamant. This leads to the end of Dan and Frances (it’s not THE reason, but that final thing most of us have been through). However, when Sophie is presented with a similar opportunity with her boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), much closer to lease renewal, Sophie decides to move on, leaving Frances’ future state of living in a state of chaos.
Of course the film is more than about where Frances lives, it’s about how she manages herself and her life in the days and weeks and months after this traumatic event. But what the filmmakers do so cleverly is track Frances’ life via her addresses, even when she’s just visiting somewhere (albeit somewhere significant). There is no timeline, per se; we know she is 27 at some point, and although other things occur during the film that give us the definitive sense that considerable time has passed (read: months and maybe a couple of years), we never really know just how long Frances’ journey is. And that adds greatly to the realism of the film; when we go through life, we don’t count the days, we just live them. Oh sure, we count DOWN to some major event, and we mark birthdays and anniversaries, but we never really notice life’s day-to-day until it has passed us by in some large chunk and we look back and wonder where the time went.
Having read what I have just written, I make the film the sound like some made-for-TV weeper, using words like “chaos” and “trauma,” and spouting phrases suggesting that all we do as a people is wonder how we’ve wasted away our days. This film isn’t like that. Yes there is chaos and trauma, and yes there is uncertainty and regret, but it’s the real-world kind, the everyday kind. It isn’t “woe is me,” it’s “what the hell am I gonna do now that my life has changed?”
You have lived this. I have lived this. Events have happened in our lives and we have had to deal with them. I’m not talking about death or some other giant tragedy; I’m talking about losing a roommate that devolves into losing a friendship. I’m talking about not knowing where the next paycheck is coming from. I’m talking about working so hard towards your dream only to have it dashed when you least expect it. There isn’t some epiphany set to a Carly Simon power ballad. There isn’t a montage of life-affirming workouts and the disposal of liquor bottles and brownie mixes. We deal with what we’re given. Sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes we make decisions that seem so right at the time but turn out wrong, sometimes the awkwardness of life prevents one thing good from happening, only to lead us down the path towards something even better.
And STILL it all sounds so melodramatic, but in the hands of Gerwig, it isn’t. It’s incredibly real and incredibly genuine, and although I was worried during the first 10 minutes or so I was going to be treated to yet another “quirky girl,” Gerwig doesn’t play it that way. She is peculiar, but not for peculiarity’s sake. It’s a natural silliness that is magnified by her natural panic over what life will present next. This happens to all of us, too. Whatever our personality trait, it seems to come out in full force when we are nervous, panicked, or stressed.
The film also has its share of tender moments, and the resolution is very satisfying.
So why is the title Frances Ha?” I’m not going to tell you; it would ruin it. You learn in the last scene of the film. In fact, the credits roll right over the reason for the title, and as soon as it clicks, it brings the film to such a warm and charming conclusion. I only wish I could share it.
I posted on Facebook immediately following the film, “I want to know what happens next. I’m not asking for a sequel, I’m just saying that’s how endearing it all is.” Frances Ha does what so few films do – it leaves you wanting more but also leaves you understanding that anything more would only spoil it.