“The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich.”
Danish Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in his book Either/Or, writes out a debate between two viewpoints on life: the aesthetic, which focuses on beauty and integrity, and the ethical, which focuses on morality and responsibilities. In the end, the answer is that nothing we do in this life, whether aesthetic, ethical, or anything else, will give us the meaning and fulfillment we desire—we have to find purpose independent of our beliefs and actions in something larger than ourselves. In a way, indie movie Frances Ha, co-written and directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) and co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig, has a similar message. It’s a movie about the idealism and values many modern young people cling to, and it paints a vivid picture of the dream of many young in their 20s.
The plot centers on Frances, a 27-year-old dancer living in New York City with her best friend Sophie, who has a job at a publishing house. It’s clear that both are trying to hold onto their glory days from college, although the obligations of real life are making that harder for each of them and forcing them to grow up. Much like Kierkegaard’s book, two viewpoints are presented. Frances struggles to make her dream work without compromise, and Sophie chooses to settle down into a more quiet and ordinary life with a newfound boyfriend. While the story focuses on Frances and her failures, it makes a point of saying that Sophie’s path isn’t perfect either. In the end, neither really finds fulfillment in the values that guided them and they’re forced to find it somewhere else.
I’m so embarrassed. I’m not a real person yet.
The beauty of Frances Ha is in its unflinchingly honest portrait of the modern hipster/Millennial dream: living in New York City and chasing dreams of artistry, culture, and enlightenment. This portrait, and the character of Frances, are both charming and aggravating. These are intellectual but not practical people, and the good and the bad of that is shown. The honest reasons for their lifestyle choices, and the accurate portrayal of its consequences, carry meaning for people who relate to Frances as well as people looking in from the outside wondering what it all means.
The biggest complaint I see about this movie is that Frances behaves irresponsibly and, frankly, like an idiot. But that’s kind of the point of the movie: her stubborn refusal to let go of any part of her values doesn’t work in the real world, and as she tries harder to live her dream out, she finds herself more and more lost in life. By the middle of the movie, we’re not supposed to find Frances admirable or noble. About the time I started finding her ridiculous is when the movie began making its point. It’s very subtle—perhaps too subtle—but the point is there.
I’ll be the first to admit that Frances Ha is written for a niche audience. It’s in the same vein as Lost in Translation in that the plot takes a backseat to the characters and relationships. The plot and point of the movie are not explicitly stated and it’s up to the viewer to find them in the dialogue and relationships. Also, viewers who don’t understand Frances’s motivation for clinging to her values may just find her annoying and petty. This doesn’t necessarily make Frances Ha a higher class of film, but it does make it a different one. If you’re able to relate to what I’ve written here, though, you may find the movie to be fascinating.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Genres: comedy, drama, indie
Movies Like Frances Ha
- Lady Bird – Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, the star of Frances Ha, this is another great movie about a young Millennial woman trying to find herself as society and her parents try to dictate who she should be. The dialogue isn’t as snappy, but this is just as smart as Frances Ha.
- The Squid and the Whale – Written and directed by Frances Ha’s director and co-writer, Noah Baumbach, this highly autobiographical film is to Gen X what films like Frances Ha are to Millennials: an unflinching and philosophical look at their young life. The Squid and the Whale is a bit heavier than Frances Ha, but has the same intelligence and raw indie sensibility.
- Greenberg – Written and directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Greta Gerwig, this is another sharp indie film about some of the interactions between Gen X and Millennials. A tired Gen X man drowning in depression and Existential ennui meets a young Millennial woman who helps pull him out of his pit of despair.
- And, of course, any of the other independent films in the Mumblecore style. Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends, and LOL also star Greta Gerwig, but other hits include In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Mutual Appreciation, and Sorry, Thanks. Or you could see the one that started it all: Funny Ha Ha.