Baumbach Captures Millennial Malaise

The mileage you get from Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha will vary according to how willing you are to see another movie about over-educated, under-employed white people floundering for their adulthoods in the financially apocalyptic New York City of this millennial age. Though, to be fair, the eponymous Frances (Greta Gerwig) does also visit Sacramento and Paris within the film’s fleet 86 minutes.

Whiteness aside, though, the fact remains that Frances Ha is an excellent example of ‘that’ kind of movie, and a lovely piece of film-making, characterization and acting. There’s nothing new here that hasn’t been recently explored exhaustively in Lena Dunham’s Girls, and in numerous past films, including Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990) and Baumbach’s own thematically similar debut Kicking and Screaming (1995).

The film takes Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010) muse Gerwig and wisely puts her under the narrative spotlight this time, perhaps realizing that her Florence was the heart and soul of that film despite it being named after Ben Stiller’s alienated grump. Frances Ha is as much Gerwig’s film as Baumbach’s (aside from playing the lead, she co-wrote as well), making their loose, episodic script sail effortlessly on her buoyant performance. She plays Frances to perfection, masterfully balancing comic timing and emotionality in her deadpan delivery and expressive use of body language.

The film is light on plot, depending instead on its rich portrayal of interpersonal relationships. It’s also an astute, witty observation of the uniquely privileged poverty of the millennial generation’s wandering  graduates. Frances belongs to a growing underclass of young people with arts degrees, poor job prospects and oodles of debt. Theirs is an eternal existential ache, brought on by a wealth of esoteric cultural knowledge–her friend Benji (Michael Zegel) is writing a sample script for Gremlins 3 and doesn’t think Saturday Night Live would be a right fit for his talents because it’s gone downhill–and an inability to recycle it into something new without going broke and falling back on the teats of the parental generation. In the film’s own appropriation of cultural history, from its romantic urban tableaux–Frances running down Manhattan streets to Bowie’s ‘Modern Love,’ or strolling through Paris with the Eiffel Tower sweeping the night sky with its spotlight in the background–to its recycling of music by Georges Delerue, who composed for Truffaut and Godard, we see a sharp awareness of lives defined by and modelled on art and failing to live up to its romance. The film lingers in the glow of that select failure.

Mirroring her anxious, creatively ambitious aimlessness, Baumbach and Gerwig simply follow Frances as she ambles through post-graduate life in New York City, mired in an ‘apprentice’ job (the dance equivalent of an unpaid internship, apparently) at a dance company she hopes to be a part of, and dealing with a sudden rift in her close relationship with best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, also wonderful).

This is a deeply romantic film, to be sure, from its lovely black-and-white cinematography to its bittersweet emphasis on the momentary beauty of happiness as opposed to the long-term certainty of disillusionment. It’s very much about love, but the essential romance here is the platonic one between Frances and Sophie. While sexuality tentatively rears its head in Frances’ dealings with various acquaintances and friends who are men (including a roommate, Lev, played by ever-charming Girls cast regular Adam Driver, further reminding of the film’s similarities to Dunham’s series) it’s never the focus, and the film doesn’t use men (or women, in a sexual context) to define her happiness.

In a scene that’s heady with Frances’ comfortable drunken honesty, she says at one point (to people she’s just met) that she longs for love, to look across a crowded room and meet eyes with someone with whom she shares a hidden life, rich with meaning, and invisible to everyone else. But when this moment is enacted in the film, it’s not with a lover but her friend, and there’s something very sweet, and welcome, about that sentiment and the way it’s portrayed. Gerwig and Sumner make the long history and trust behind their friendship evident in every scene, and it makes the rocky rhythms of their non-sexual ‘break-up’ and its fallout very affecting and convincing.

Sex is on the periphery of Frances Ha, an abstract longing, but Frances’ friends and family are her anchors when she succumbs to her own self-pity or immaturity. That sounds trite, but the truth of it keeps Frances Ha a welcomingly warm film even in its saddest moments, when we see a young, smart and talented woman completely lost as to how to be a “real person,” and the echoes of the film’s narrative take on a wider resonance when compared to the endemic malaise of her generation. I’m not white, but I am in my twenties, an arts graduate with an overabundance of cultural information and a paucity of real-world experience, and I sympathized powerfully with Frances—a good indicator of the film’s success as a character piece, rather than just another tired look at an over-exposed, over-represented demographic and situational narrative. Low-key but delightful, sad and funny, this might be one of the best American films of the year, and a fresh high-point in both Baumbach and Gerwig’s careers.