The disillusioned and the lost, or, Frances Ha’s life lessons

by David Alm on June 7, 2013

frances-ha-trailer-0352013-154457Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Frances Ha, takes us into the world of a young woman a few years out of college. The effect is startlingly accurate, at times painful, and generally brilliant.

The subject is familiar territory for Baumbach, who has built a career exploring the existential angst of young, educated, well-meaning people who were never told that a deep understanding of Heidegger would hold no sway in the work-a-day world.

Until, that is, they enter it, and that reality comes crashing down on his liberal arts protagonists who find themselves suddenly at odds with the culture they spent years attempting to understand — a chilling irony, and captured perfectly. Also, they’re surrounded by functionaries in that culture who may not know who Eugene Ionesco was but can nevertheless make a great deal of money. It’s a rich vein for humor, especially if you’re just like the people in his films.

Watching Frances Ha, for me, was not quite like watching a film about myself, but it came close. The title character, Frances, graduated from college (Vassar, as it turns out, though the school is never named — but how many Gothic liberal arts colleges are there in Poughkeepsie, NY?) five years earlier and is still struggling to find her way. She’s an aspiring dancer who loses her only semblance of stability when her best friend and roommate decides to move out for fancier digs in Tribeca. Frances is thus alone in a city full of lonely young people who seem to use each other in a concerted effort to deny their loneliness. It’s hard to watch this film and not feel like 80% of the friendships you had in your 20s were bogus.

She travels — home to California, to Paris, back to Poughkeepsie, and all over New York City — and along the way she stumbles towards a kind of haphazard self-actualization. Her character arc brings to mind the old saying that life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans, but however cliche that might be, it’s rendered in this movie with such honesty and heart that we’re reminded that some cliches are cliches for a reason. It’s essentially, and very simply, true.

When I graduated from college, with a self-designed degree in art history and 20th Century literature, I cared more about the difference between Clement Greenberg’s structuralist notions of modern art and Frederick Jameson’s concept of “pastiche” than I did about getting a “job.” And so I worked at a sandwich shop in my college town for a year while my life took on an uncanny resemblance to the lives depicted in Baumbach’s first feature film, Kicking and Screaming, which portrays a group of friends who stick around their college town for a year after graduating. They’re sympathetic characters, but pathetic all the same. In their paralysis, they seem elderly at 22. They’re spoiled, delusional, and self-absorbed, but you can tell it’s just a phase. Within a few years, provided they get the hell out of town and get on with their lives, they’ll be fine.

I was turned onto the film, which had just been released a couple of years earlier, by an acquaintance from the smoke-filled coffee shop where I used to while away my days and, in the words of my boss from the sandwich shop, “watch the world go by.” My acquaintance casually suggested to me over a game of chess that I see the film, and I thought he was just making a movie recommendation. Once I saw it, I realized he was trying to tell me something. I left town shortly thereafter.

I offer the same gentle nudge to anyone who can relate to the experience of leaving college and spending the next several years floundering about as those halcyon days of learning for learning’s sake fade into the background and your present begins to feel more like that of a homeless adolescent: unmoored, insecure, and overwhelmed by the prospect of many more decades of the same.

Frances Ha does a beautiful job of reminding us that sometimes things do, indeed, have a way of working themselves out.

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