Frances Ha (2012) is a film that throughout the years, I often go back to for different reasons. When I first watched the movie as a teenager, I was struck by how it depicted a friendship breakup, something that I had never witnessed in film before, yet strongly resonated with me at the time. Today, as a twenty-one year old, I often seek comfort in this film mainly because of the way it represents the chaos that is called “our 20s”.
Directed by Noah Baumbach, who also co-wrote the script with the star of the film Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha follows the story of Frances after her best friend Sophie moves out of their Brooklyn apartment. From this point on, they go from being inseparable to slowly drifting apart, and so Frances is now stuck navigating her life as a broke dancer in New York all by herself. During this confusing time, she makes awful financial decisions, she moves in with different roommates, including Lev and Benji, two rich kids disguised as early 2010s hipsters, and above all, she attempts to take care of herself after Sophie, her other half, leaves her behind to join the terrifying world of adults.
With its visual style and character-driven storytelling, Frances Ha is Baumbach’s ode to the French New Wave. While the film initially appears as a contemporary coming-of-age story for millenials, it still retains many elements from this innovative era of cinema, namely its black-and-white cinematography and its music (“École Buissonnière” from The 400 Blows (1959) is included in the soundtrack). Most importantly, it is Frances’ romantic and eccentric attitude towards life that resonates with French New Wave clichés. The camaraderie between Frances, Lev and Benji is reminiscent of the one from beloved films such as Bande à Part (1964) and Jules et Jim (1962). Similar to an Anna Karina character, Frances lives her life without abiding to the societal expectations of how an adult woman should behave: she carelessly dances through the streets of New York, she rambles on about soulmates to confused adults at a serious dinner party, and the only “furniture” she owns is a chair, a printer and piles of books. Hence, this is where the timeless nature of Frances Ha lies: it is a tale of a modern underdog who struggles to overcome adulthood.
Frances Ha looks into the difficulties of growing up and doing “adult things” by using a classic underdog story structure. The first element from this archetype that is employed in this film is the main character’s conflict, which is herself. More precisely, Frances is a complete hot mess, the foil to Sophie. While Sophie is clean, Frances is unorganized (“I’m not messy. I’m busy”). While Sophie works at a prestigious publishing house, Frances is an apprentice at a dance company and hangs onto the hope she may, emphasis on may, be part of her company’s Christmas show. While Frances drunkenly urinates on the subway tracks after a night out, Sophie cradles her friend in the cab on their way home. To summarize, in Frances’ own words, she “isn’t a real person yet.” As one can easily notice, instead of having a typical friendship, the two women definitely have more of a mother-daughter type of relationship. The film opens with a heartwarming depiction of their friendship, but once Sophie leaves their apartment, Frances’ life starts to fall apart and we soon realize that she is in fact unable to function as an adult without her trusted friend/mother figure.
In this light, Frances fits the underdog role because she is a lovable character whom the audience keeps rooting for. Her greatest quality is that she is a big dreamer at heart and lets her inner child roam free. Oftentimes, Frances’ independent nature is a blessing because her optimism and her playfulness, which stems from Gerwig’s infectious humour, is the most endearing part of her character. This is evident in the iconic scene where she runs through the streets of Chinatown while David Bowie’s “Modern Love” plays, or when she moves in with Lev and Benji simply because she feels like it (“We’re hilarious together, we’re like a sitcom”). She still holds on to her dream of becoming a big contemporary dancer in New York, even if it is obvious to everyone, including the viewers, that this boat has sailed for her. Still, in true underdog fashion, we all root for her despite her imperfections.
However, Frances’ independent and dreamy character is a double-edged sword. Her overt optimism also serves as a curse because she is completely stubborn and disconnected from reality. Frances is someone who desperately needs guidance except she is too hard-headed to reveal her pain to others, even in the most dire situations. We see Frances’ single-mindedness when she books a last-minute solo trip to Paris in the hopes of feeling like a real grown up. Of course, this plan backfires because Frances not only endebts herself, but the trip simply leaves her feeling more isolated than before. At this point in the story, Frances resents Sophie for being in a fully-committed relationship with her boyfriend Patch, ultimately enabling a huge fight between the two women (“Sophie, I fucking held your head while you cried! I bought special milk for you. I know where you hide your pills. Don’t treat me like a three-hour brunch friend!”). During this trip, Sophie, who is about to move to Japan with Patch, calls Frances as an attempt to make peace. For the first time during her stay in the City of Lights, Frances is actually happy and relieved, yet she still refuses to tell her friend that she is in Paris because deep down, she knows her old companion will be aware that something is wrong. Here, Frances’ independent quality slowly morphs into stubbornness. This is due to the fact that she mistakenly sees adulthood as this place where everyone is going through life effortlessly. Therefore, she is unable to admit her own mistakes to herself.
In any underdog story, there is always the moment where the main character hits rock bottom. In Frances Ha, this happens once she leaves her dance company after her boss suggests that she starts working as a receptionist instead of remaining an apprentice, and also once she has no couch to crash on anymore. Lonely and friendless, she leaves the Big Apple and goes back to her old college for the summer to work as an RA and as a waitress. Needless to say, she is clearly out of place amongst the young students (“It wasn’t that long ago that I went here. I’m only 27”). At this point, the flame that ignited Frances’ spirit is gone: she is not the dreamer we once saw prancing in the streets of New York, but instead she is an unhappy woman trying to survive. Frances’ situation is worsened as she constantly refreshes Sophie’s blog, which depicts her seemingly perfect life in Japan alongside her new fiancé Patch. During one of the events where Frances is working as a wine pourer, she unexpectedly runs into Sophie, who is one of the attendees. In this instance, Frances and Sophie are clearly living two completely different lives: while Sophie and her fiancé are attending charity events at her Alma Mater, Frances is the one pouring wine in their glasses.
It initially appears that Sophie’s life is inherently better than Frances’, but this façade soon starts to crumble. Later that evening, after a fight with Patch, Sophie drunkenly goes to Frances’ dorm and spends the night there. During an intimate exchange, Sophie reveals that despite what she shared on her blog, she actually despises her life in Japan, she had a miscarriage and she wants to break up with Patch. In this scene, the tight-knit friendship that Frances and Sophie had at the very beginning of the film emerges once again, even if it’s for a moment. More importantly, this conversation is crucial to Frances’ character development because she learns a valuable lesson: even the people who seem to excel in “adulting” are still broken inside.
From this point on, even though the friendship between the two women is not healed, Frances decides to get back on her feet. Following her boss’ advice, she goes back to New York and returns to her old dance company to work as a receptionist while putting together her own dance show. As Frances allows herself to be helped by others and to be realistic with her artistic dream, her happy-go-lucky self is back and better than ever. With this new Frances, we see her doing all sorts of adult things: she has an office job, she is taking a risk with her dance show and she swapped her staple leggings and dress combo for office attire. Even then, the energy that made Frances so captivating is still very much present, as seen when she is dancing in the park during her lunch break. Indeed, Frances overcame the negative aspects of her independent personality, such as her naivety and stubbornness, by accepting help from other people, all while maintaining her trademark charm.
By the end, Frances comes out as the winner, but not in the traditional underdog way. Instead of receiving any form of external validation, her true prize is learning that “adulting” is an ever-changing stage of life and not something that a person can entirely overcome in a short amount of time. She is now able to embrace who she is without comparing herself to Sophie or anybody else who seems to be a “real” adult. This is established in the film’s conclusion, in the scene where she presents her dance show. As all the characters of the film unite and watch in awe, even Frances admires her own show with so much pride. The Frances we once knew who was couchsurfing, who struggled to keep up with fancy adult dinner conversations, who did not own any appliances nor furniture, is now gone, but her idealism still sparkles in her eyes. In an even more touching moment, the film ends with Frances moving into her own apartment. As Frances looks back at her new and half moved-in space, she has the face of a fulfilled woman who is in love with her new life and her adult self, and that is the best trophy she could ever ask for.
Frances Ha proves that getting better at being an adult, especially when you are not ready to grow up, is a universal experience that transcends time. For me, as a young woman who is one semester away from being a University graduate, this film is relatable on so many levels. Is it because I will soon become the post-grad girl who is “navigating her 20s”? Sure. Is it because Greta Gerwig is so hilarious that she can make you smile even on your worst days? Of course. However, as someone who is constantly comparing my success to others, evaluating whether I am “doing enough” for my age, I always go back to that scene where Sophie breaks down to Frances and then I remember that with “adulting”, no one really has their shit together, even the ones who appear to be perfect at it, and that’s okay.