If Harmony Korine’s candy coated debauchery fest Spring Breakers was every parent’s worst nightmare realized, then Noah Baumbach’s sublime Frances Ha, a love letter to New York City and truly finding yourself in it is just the opposite of that, in every way possible.
Greta Gerwig — who plays the titular Frances, a 20-something dancer working through the ups and downs of careers, apartments, and friendships in the Big Apple — explains, “I feel like the people who have most pulled me aside [after seeing the film] have honestly been parents in their 50s and 60s who are like, ‘My daughter is in New York and I understand this.’ And they feel it as parents in this way that’s very intense, and they feel grateful because the movie took care of these characters. They feel like the world will take care of their children.”
It probably doesn’t hurt that Gerwig — who co-wrote the funny, heartfelt, and blisteringly honest (parents might have an easier time getting through Frances Ha than the 20-somethings it reflects will, as it hits all too close to home sometimes) along with Baumbach — claims to be something of an old soul herself. “I’ve never felt young in my whole life, so that helped,” Gerwig says of making Frances Ha, a film that can often feel like if Girls met Woody Allen.
And while the the actress is as vibrant and fashionable and beautiful as anyone in their 20s (she is 29-years-old), she does have the grace and wisdom of someone well beyond her years, or her generation, for that matter. She can discuss classic literature and modern sexism, often in the same breath.
“I just re-read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and I think that people get really angry when it’s women doing it, to be totally honest,” Gerwigs says when on the subject of why female-lead entertainment like Frances Ha or Girls get unfairly criticized, while their male counterparts can go largely unscathed. “There’s something that feels threatening about it and they have to be doing something other than being thoughtful,” she continues. “It has to be somehow an exercise in narcissism, because why else would you make anything about women? I think that the violence of the reaction has more to do with something that’s not to do with the art.”
Social injustices aside, Gerwig takes no credit away from her on and off-screen collaborator Baumbach (whom she is dating) in the telling of Frances’ story.
“He’s a man in his 40s and I’m a woman in her 20s, but I feel like, in a way, I wouldn’t have written this unless I was writing it with him,” she says. “It felt like he almost gave me permission to tell my story. Or, not my story, but the story of this woman. Because it validated it, because it was outside eyes. I think if I were left alone I wouldn’t have the courage to say, ‘I’m going to tell the story of a 27-year-old dancer and her best friend and their money troubles.’ That wouldn’t feel like enough of a story for me, and it was the fact that he said, ‘Oh, I think this can be really good, and I have a lot of empathy for this.’ That allowed me to feel more magnanimous towards my generation than I might be otherwise, because I can be just as critical as anyone else.”
It’s true that Frances Ha doesn’t shy away from truthfully telling a 20-something woman’s story, particularly one set in New York City. While the core of Frances’ story may be a universal one, it is one that is quintessentially New York. Missed late night F trains, outrageous ATM fees, and even more outrageous rent rates are just as critical to telling Frances’ story as the relationships in it. As any New Yorker will tell you, the highs and lows alike are an almost daily occurrence, often taking place within seconds of each other.
Take it from Gerwig, a New Yorker herself, who recalls one of those very New York moments you assume one only sees on screen. “One day I was walking down the street and I was so happy and wearing a cute outfit and a cab went by and did the thing where the water splashes on you and I was like, ‘Am I in Sex and the City? Am I Carrie Bradshaw? What is happening?’ It was so absurd,” Gerwig says, adding, “You can’t get the romance of the city without having the hardship of the city, and it’s totally built into the romance, too. That’s part of the idealization of it, I think.”
Again, don’t be fooled into thinking that Frances Ha only reaches out to the demographic of young, urban women. As Gerwig’s co-star Mickey Sumner, who plays Frances’ best friend Sophie, notes, it’s a film that strikes just as strong a chord with men of any age. “I think the reactions that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing from people coming out of seeing the movie is that this is not a chick flick,” she says. “Grown men, boys my age, coming out [of the theater] crying. This English guy, maybe 65-years-old, came up to me and said, ‘That is the first movie in a really long time that I understood. People relate to it, because it’s not about girls who are 27. It’s about friendship.”
Sumner is right. More than any other aspect of Frances Ha — doomed relationships, neurotic New York City life, financial woes, professional setbacks — it is a movie, at its very core, about friendship. Particularly the phase of close friendships in which one person goes one way, and the other person goes sharply towards another. In the case of former roommates and best friends Frances and Sophie, one struggles to keep her head above water while pursuing her passion, while the other embarks on a whirlwind romance with a guy named Patch.
“[Noah and I] discovered that it was a love story between Frances and Sophie, and it activated everything,” Gerwig recalls. “As soon as we realized it was that, that was the story. There was not a romantic story. It wasn’t a sad story. It wasn’t an extra story. It was the story. It felt very right for me because I’ve been through it with friends.”
If the friendship on screen between Frances and Sophie feels so authentic (the ups, the downs, the little moments and tics only you and your best friend can share or understand) it’s because Gerwig and Sumner have such a solid, loving friendship off screen. Take this this witty, heartfelt exchange between the two actresses, which feels like it could have been a page directly out of Frances Ha‘s script:
Greta: “My friendship with Mickey is all just light and happiness.”
Mickey: “I hope we never break up.”
Greta: “We met as adults, though, which is different. I feel like it changes it. I’ll never be like, ‘Mickey, why do you have dinner with anyone else besides me?'”
Mickey: “Although, secretly, I’m waiting for that moment. I’d actually be like, ‘Yes! … We’re real friends.'”
Frances Ha is currently playing in limited release.