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FRANCES HA 10 years later: perhaps there is much more to adulthood.

As the Barbie (2023) wave swept over Australia, ACMI’s tribute to its director Greta Gerwig’s remarkable career from her early mumblecore indie days feels almost nostalgic while offering a refreshing perspective.

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As the Barbie (2023) wave swept over Australia, ACMI’s tribute to its director Greta Gerwig’s remarkable career from her early mumblecore indie days feels almost nostalgic while offering a refreshing perspective.

Revisiting her early onscreen presence through Frances Ha, a 2012 indie release which she co-directed along with Noah Baumbach, I was expecting a relaxing movie afternoon over a warm coffee on the weekend, only to find myself walking out of the cinema full of thoughts and emotions. A movie about platonic love, Frances Ha is definitely an oddball among the rom-coms: no grandiose trope, no fateful encounter, no climatic buildup, nor did the protagonist actually end up with her romantic meant-to-be companion. Shot entirely in black and white, the movie is anything but: it seems to be a story about adulthood, love, friendship, middle-class everyday struggle, an artist’s dream, success and failure–all of these all at once but not quite. And despite being a decade old, the coming-of-age story of Frances still resonates with recent college graduates struggling to let go of their youth.

Set in New York city, the movie follows the story of Frances–Gerwig herself–a 27-year-old college graduate and modern dancer who works as an apprentice for a dance company. She shares an apartment in Brooklyn, New York with her best friend from college, Sophie (Micky Sunner), who has a steady career in publishing. The movie opens with a montage of amusing and mundane activities Frances and Sophie would do together in a day before falling asleep side by side. Their chemistry is one that only soulmates can have: they fake-fight, banter, share the chores and even share the same dream. “Tell me the story of us,” asks Frances of her friend while lying in bed, and Sophie would narrate a future where Frances is a famous modern dancer and Sophie would publish the best story about her.  

Then one day, Sophie casually decides to move out into a better apartment and Frances finds her whole life wobbling (and also herself tumbling from place to place).

If it’s a story about adulthood, Frances’ is a poignant but charming one. In the beginning, I found Frances’ immaturity, frivolity and lack of direction frustrating at times, especially when put in contrast with Sophie’s more composed and organised existence. She broke up with her boyfriend while fighting over cats’ fur, which to her was no more than a hiccup. When she got a tax rebate, the first thought that came to her was inviting a guy out to a meal, and when her credit card declined, she insisted on paying by leaping to the ATM and tripping herself on the way. “I’m so embarrassed I’m not a real person yet," says Frances to Lev (Adam Driver) at dinner, as if adulthood means being prepared to pay. “I’m trying to be proactive about my life,” she explained to her boss while asking for more hours.

Her aimlessness turns into alarming disorientation when she gets cut off from the Christmas show and thus unable to afford rent. Despite her constantly saying “I’m poor”, she made incomprehensible financial decisions by spending a weekend away in Paris on a whim just when she lost her job. In trying to hold on to her relationship with Sophie, Frances attempts to have a fake fight with Rachel (reminiscent of what her Sophie would do), but instead merely annoys Rachel, rather than have any sort of fun. Yet throughout the movie, the way Greta Gerwig naturally inhabits the character with her infectious charisma and quirks is too delightful, too amusing and charming for there to be any gloomy undertone in the movie.

The brisk and light-hearted pacing of the movie can be summed up in the scene of Frances running and leaping along the streets of New York to the melodies of David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’. After her separation from Sophie, Frances sets herself adrift in the current of life, tumbling between different addresses that amusingly make up the titles of the movie’s chapters. Her life is surrounded by people who are also “not real people yet”. She crashes at an apartment with Lev and Benji (Michael Zegen)–two men who still live the collegiate lifestyle of casual hookups, financial freedom without a real job and working as artists-soon-to-be. We can see snapshots of Frances as a dancer but not the focused practice-till-your-body-break kind of dancer who is set on pursuing her dream. Her encounter with Benji, their flirtatious interactions and him appearing at her show towards the end of the movie suggest they might end up together in a typical rom-com, but instead they joke about each other being “undateable”.

Here, I have to give credit to Baumbach’s tactful use of montage in setting the light-hearted pace while capturing the painful life transitions and unspoken love between two people. From the excruciating awkward dinner to the sluggish afternoon between Frances and Benji (“the married couple that never have sex”), to the brief glimpses into Frances’ life back home during the Christmas holiday when she visits the dentist, decorates the Christmas tree, takes the dog out for a walk and meets up with old friend–these montages add dimensionality to the characters and give a brisk, delightful pace to the 86-minute movie.

Indeed, Gerwig’s portrayal of the protagonist reminds me of the saying that life is not a journey but simply a dance, and Frances’ coming-of-age is a jazz piece that is light in texture, brisk in pace, graceful in flow, and funky in beats–spontaneous but charming in its own way. The montage of her being alone in Paris sleeping away the first day due to jetlag, wandering aimlessly and trying in vain to reach an old friend for a meetup is particularly heartbreaking. Yet, through it all, her face still lit up and smiled when she got a call from Sophie telling her she is setting off for Japan the week after. The movie concludes with a montage showing Frances and Sophie at a party after Frances’ performance, both talking to other people, and laughing and shining.

“…and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes… because that is your person in life. And it’s funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about.”

That is Frances’ realisation about love–a love she had already let go of.

Perhaps if I were writing this review three years ago, I would have admittedly been a much harsher critic of her immaturity and lack of direction. But writing it as I am now in my final year of university, I find the movie resonating on a personal level. When we are in our twenties, we are expected to have things all figured out. We should be financially independent, have a consolidated circle of friends, have a life partner and a career–the world of adulthood does not wait for us to properly grow up before hitting us with anxieties, apathy and solitude. But throughout the movie, Frances is still the quirky playful “undateable” Frances who never voices her problems and waltzes through them one by one. The ending leaves the protagonist better off than she is at the start, but with some saddening realisations. She comes to realise the meaning of terms like success and failure, that sometimes it is OK to be not OK, to get disoriented and lost, to fail expectations, to tumble and fall.

All you have to do is just bounce back and hop along. And maybe adulthood in Frances Ha is also realising the love you want in life and letting it go.

 
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