What do you think about when you think about "coming of age" movies? Probably something along the lines of Almost Famous and Stand by Me, right? Movies about that particularly angsty and magical moment in which a kid comes into contact with the realities of the adult world. I guess that is a fairly good definition, and one that both reflected and influenced the realities of the 20th century's youth. But we are in the 21st century now, and just a couple of weeks ago Time Magazine had a cover story about "millennials", people belonging to a generation that is highly narcissistic, self-entitled and immature, btu also creative (It is also a generation to which I undoubtedly belong to).
Maturity and adulthood seem to be much later developments in the lives of the young people of today, and so, a new kind of "coming of age" movie has appropriately been developed. This genre I propose as relatively new isn't really all that novel. A lot of movies from the past decade (raging from Zach Braff's mopy Garden State to all those man-child Judd Apatow comedies) have dealt with the difficulty of identifying oneself as an adult. However, I'd say it's only been in the past few years that this type of narrative has really blossomed. And the higher quality has coincided with the focus on female protagonists. The quintessential example of this trend is actually not a movie, but Lena Dunham's television series Girls. In any case, all of this is to say that Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha is one of the best films of this kind that I've seen.
Making comparisons between Girls and Frances Ha is pretty easy. They are both about young women caught between immaturity and adulthood, their relationship with a college friend and they are both set in New York City. But declaring them too similar would be a disservice to the artistic voices behind each production and, quite frankly, a underestimation of the genre. You wouldn't go around saying The Godfather and Goodfellas are the same movie just because they are both gangster stories, right? I'm not here to talk about Girls (which is an amazing series nonetheless and you should watch it), but I can say the following about Frances Ha: It is just not another story about a girl in the big city coming to terms with herself. It is much more.
Frances (played by Greta Gerwig) is a twenty-seven-year-old dancer who is dreaming of making it big in New York, but whose prospects don't look all that bright. She has a really tight relationship with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Towards the beginning of the film Greta asks Sophie to tell her how they're going to be successful in their respective careers in a sort of prayer that they have surely planned out and said aloud for a long time. It is a little something Frances can cling to even when she is going through some pretty rough stuff. But suddenly her relationship with Sophie isn't as close and Frances seems to be lost at sea without the friend that tells her how successful they'll be. It is then that out heroine embarks in a personal journey that brings her closer to reality and maturity.
The strength of the movie is the way in which we go though Frances journey. It is shot in beautiful black and white that calls back to Woody Allen's Manhattan and French New Wave movies like the work of François Truffaut. But while it Frances Ha embraces certain visuals and themes present in those movies, it has a voice all its own. A voice that is at once really funny, somewhat melancholic, but above all incredibly radiant and optimistic. Frances' whole journey is surrounded by uncertainty and instability (she is even homeless for a big portion of the movie), but the film insists on putting on a face of hope and security similar to the way Frances relies on Sophie telling her about their hypothetical future to remain calm. All of this, of course, results in what is an insanely enjoyable movie.
The screenplay credit of the movie goes both to director Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, and it is one fitting credit. Frances Ha is, above anything, a character portrait. Greta Gerwig has been the ultimate star of the independent circuit for a couple years now, and has never been better than she is here. Her Frances is a tridimensional character if there ever was one. And not only does she embody a realistic personality, but she also plays off of Frances' weaknesses and flaws and combines them with her more charismatic elements in a performance that is delightful to witness. Watching Gerwig made me think of Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. If you've seen that movie, you know the kind of high praise that association is.