“I’m so embarrassed. I’m not a real person yet.” – Frances Ha (2013)

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One of my favorite movies of the year. I am filled with a sense of gratitude that it even exists. It gets everything right. That was my life. That was how I lived. That is what it looks like to be a striving non-mainstream-type-person in New York City. I have left restaurants to run to an ATM, frantic because they wouldn’t take a credit card. I have had those random nights where suddenly a group of people meld into one, and no one judges, and no one ruins the mood, and you are all strangers but your communion with said group shimmers with the magic of being able to connect. The awkward dinner party filled with lawyers and people who just had babies and people who can go to Paris and stuff because they have real jobs and money rang so uneasily true and reminded me of my first relationship to a guy much older than me: he was a lawyer and I was … in my early 20s, a struggling actress holding down dumb day jobs and taking classes and being an understudy to get Equity points, and all of that was what I SHOULD have been doing, but trying to explain all of that to lawyers at fancy dinner parties was nigh on impossible, and made me feel bad about myself, and it’s so ephemeral, it’s just in the glances, the uncomfortable pauses, and into those pauses opens up an abyss where you question your entire existence. THAT is what Frances Ha is able to show. So well done. I have a friendship like the one between Sophie and Frances. It is a friendship unlike any other I have seen on screen, one that gets the dynamic between two really really close friends. It gets it so right. The one shot of Frances reading out loud as Sophie knits … simple moments like that, why are they so absent from the screen? But that’s where the gratitude comes from because now it does exist on the screen. And it is a signpost, beckoning: “Come this way.”

Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig in Franes Ha

The fact that there are no villains, even the bitchy dancer played by Mamie Gummer is not all bad. You can certainly see her point, and you can certainly understand her frustration with Frances. Even Nadia, the woman who holds the dinner party which is so super uncomfortable with poor Frances trying to make conversation and bombing out with every comment … there’s a moment later when Frances is talking about what she wants out of a relationship, that moment at a party where you look across the room and exchange a glance with your significant other, not a glance that has to do with sex or emotion, but a glance of understanding that means, simply, “That’s my person over there.” And Frances’ monologue is rambling and drunken (Gerwig is brilliant), but there’s a flash on Nadia’s face, a flash of empathy, a flash that she does, after all, get it. It is not quite comfortable to have a random person show up at your dinner party and make bizarre slightly combative comments all night, but in that moment, Nadia sees Frances. These are such small human moments, but they end up being gigantic in scope. Universal. Frances is not made to be adorably clumsy, or under appreciated for unfair reasons: She really is difficult, and, in some respects, “un-date-able”, as her friend Ben (who clearly is half in love with her) keeps telling her.

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She does not behave in the usual cliched manner, and she is not given a perfect man who has to break through her defenses to make her happy. Because what needs to happen is that Frances needs to settle in and accept the goodness of the life that is right there in front of her, not out there in the future. Frances is not made to be tragic, or pathetic (who the hell does she thinks she is, still trying to be a dancer at the age of 27?). She is not a Loony-Tunes Nut totally out of touch with reality. It’s just that dreams sometimes die hard. That’s the way with old old dreams. The dance concert, choreographed by Frances, brought a powerful surge of emotion for me, because I understood the compromise that it represented for Frances, but I also understood the huge breakthrough.

This is such a positive film. (And what good luck to have seen Mauvais Sang just last week, so now I recognize the tribute therein in Greta Gerwig’s delirious dance across what looks like Houston Street, all to the accompanying soundtrack of “Modern Love”).

Frances Ha

Frances Ha is firmly on Frances’ side, even as it shows her in her worst moments. It does not clean up her flaws, things that may be endearing at first (her room is messy because she’s “busy”) but soon grow annoying to her friends, and that is PART of being on her side, of not marginalizing her. Characters like Frances are usually wacky sidekicks. But here, she steps center stage. There are scenes that are mortifying to sit through, and the cringe that it brings is one of recognition. At least that was true for me. I have been that person. I have felt those things. I have clung to my friendships in similar ways. I have had to let things go. I understand the momentous feeling one gets when you write out your name to put on your little urban mailbox, and there’s only one name to put there, and maybe there’s a pang that there aren’t two names, but at the same time, it’s a beautiful independent feeling to know that this is your place, and your name, and you are trying to be a grownup and there it is, on your mailbox label.

How do you even put this tiny stuff onscreen and have it tell such a gigantic and universal story?

Frances Ha does.

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6 Responses to “I’m so embarrassed. I’m not a real person yet.” – Frances Ha (2013)

  1. DBW says:

    Sounds exciting. I get so tired of the same old cliched characters who only look like other movie/TV characters, and not anybody I’ve ever known. I feel a sense of relief and gratitude when I find a little film gem that has true and real people populating its landscape–instead of cardboard boats on a cardboard sea.

  2. Jake Cole says:

    This makes me so happy. I only recently caught up with the film (I’m not the world’s biggest Baumbach booster, and also it never played in Birmingham and I was too swamped at the time to get back to Atlanta), and loved every waking second of it. But I was also hesitant to give in to it fully, afraid that perhaps I loved it so much because it’s such a soft, loving critique of what I felt were millennial things; even those who love it present it as a fond tribute to post-grad, debt-ridden youth that I didn’t know if I just WANTED to love it. But I managed to rewatch it pretty shortly thereafter when I picked it up during Barnes & Noble’s Criterion sale, and no, it just feels so great and universal. Yes, it may obviously be oriented around young people, but I don’t think it’s specific to now, and I think it would have been as relevant coming out in the New Wave era it references as it is today. And Gerwig is perfect; I was still so muddled on her I don’t think I put her name on the Village Voice poll I got to submit, but now she is absolutely among my favorite performances of the year. She’s so totally lived in and real, so ridiculous and worth criticizing but also so human that the criticisms are what you would tell to a friend (or have told to you by a good, honest friend), not a falsity you would pick apart as a viewer.

    • sheila says:

      Well, like my cousin Mike says: every generation needs a voice. It’s no use telling them to look to the past for their models – that way leads to dead ends and meaningless nostalgia. Youth may come to look at the past with reverence and realize that there are truths to be found there too – but you need someone current addressing those same-old issues. Just because David Mamet said it once, or Sidney Lumet said it once, or whatever, doesn’t mean that it’s not worth saying again. There are not a million stories to tell. There are, on the whole, about ten. The point is to say it well, and to mean it.

      What I appreciated about it was its warmth. I was so happy at how warm it was -

      For instance: the head of the dance school. She so could have been a cliche – and like everyone she was slightly frustrated with Frances and didn’t know what to do with her – but then near the end there was that one shot of the two of them talking in the office, and it was so unselfconscious and friendly – and I thought: YES. that is what life looks like.

      Frances’ choices were not treated as the deadening compromises that a more jaded (and dumb) attitude would have taken. And therefore, the head of the dance company got to be a good person doing her best, just like everyone else, as opposed to a meanie who “didn’t get it” – know what I mean?

      That attitude is damn near Cassavetes-esque in its belief that everyone is doing their best, in all their messiness, with all their mistakes.

      If it had been cynical, I would have fucking hated it, of that I am sure. I am not a Noah Baumbach fan at all. So this was a totally beautiful surprise and I loved its attitude and freshness. Maybe I didn’t have cell phones in my mid-late 20s, but that was totally my life, my friendships, my feelings about where I was at, about being 27, etc. etc.

      So universal!!

      Absolutely in love with it.

  3. sheila says:

    Also her trip home to Sacramento. Her parents are real people – not caricatures. They aren’t presented as boring drips who don’t get it – but as supportive sweet people. This is AS true to life as the square judgey parents who don’t get it and yet it is not as commonly shown. Maybe because it makes you seem “deep” to see everything as dreary and hopeless, but whatever the root cause, it is tiresome. I loved seeing Frances in her family – laughing hysterically at the party, and engaged with her family … this is a woman who has connections, who is not just a will o’ the wisp adrift in New York. This is like everyone I knew at that crazy time in my life – in grad school in New York, working, dreaming, dead broke, staying up all night, weekends home for sustenance with the family who care for you …

    and yet it’s not presented sentimentally but realistically.

    This is ALSO how life looks. A welcome tonic.

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