I wrote a version of this essay, about the Noah Baumbach-Greta Gerwig film Frances Ha, when I was 21 years old. It was 2013, a year and a half after the film came out. I wanted to write about how the film frames its main character’s coming of age, which happens when she is in her late twenties and involves a reevaluation of what it means to properly love and be properly loved back.
So much of the film is about the 27-year-old Frances (Greta Gerwig) wishing she could hold onto aspects of life from her college years, living the kind of blithe, spontaneous, aimless but passionate life she should likely have begun to depart from.
I remember it was strange watching this film when I was 21, a senior in college but also a kind of graduate student, having convinced my English department to revive a semi-defunct submatriculation program so that I could simultaneously pursue a master’s degree during that final year. I was probably more grown up then than I am now, and as I watched the film I felt slightly surprised, baffled by this young woman who did not seem to know how to move her life in a meaningful direction.
Now, at 30, rewatching the film and rereading my original essay, I sympathize with Frances’s yearnings for those free and easy days, understand her lack of momentum and her perception of growth as a surrender to the mundane. Then again, I wonder now if there were never any easy days, just younger ones.
“Frances Ha is a love story,” I wrote when I was 21. I wasn’t wrong. It is a love story and this is established immediately, from the first two cheerful, ukulele-scored minutes of the film before the title card. This introduction features a montage of both amusing and humdrum activities that Frances and her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), blissfully and blithely complete in one day together, before falling asleep in bed, side by side.
Even though the film, released in May of 2012, was billed (in summaries on various websites and even in its trailer) as the story of an eccentric young woman determined to live her dream of being a dancer even as it increasingly eludes her, it is fundamentally a story of how such a young woman pursues the things she loves after the person she loves the most—her best friend—leaves.
Sophie, who works in publishing and has a steady, financier boyfriend, provides contrast and stability to Frances’s kooky, ingenuous, late-blooming existence. After Sophie leaves, Frances pines for her, encountering other adults—or people who more successfully pose as adults—until she starts to realize what real love, and real adulthood, truly are. Thus, I thought in 2013, while this film is a love story, it does not reveal the discovery of love; it is about the grittiest, least romantic, most realistic aspects of existing relationships and how one woman grows up past the excuses and whims of youth to earn the deep, real love she already has.
Frances jokes awkwardly that when Sophie moves out of their apartment to live in a more sophisticated neighborhood, she has “broken up” with her, but their relationship cannot be defined by the linear implications of that phrase. “Tell me the story of us,” Frances asks her friend while they are lying in bed, and Sophie (after responding with “Again?”) narrates their dreams as Frances enthusiastically interjects. The phrase the “story of us,” as well as the single bed, evokes a sense of destined coupling, or that they are soulmates (platonic replacements for romantic ideals), while Sophie’s careful narration and Frances’s eager interruptions evoke a mother telling a child a favorite bedtime story.
Though the two are established as an inseparable pair, Sophie’s steady lifestyle choices and her habit of making Frances’s bed make her the more maternal of the two. Later in the film, a friend remarks that Frances seems older than Sophie, but “less, like, grown up.” Characters often observe this maturational divide between these friends—a gap so ingrained in Frances’s daily life, she hardly notices it. Thus, when Sophie leaves the apartment, it is as if Frances has not only lost her soulmate but also her mother, or at least the person in charge of taking care of her.
When Sophie leaves the apartment, it is as if Frances has not only lost her soulmate but also her mother.
Adulthood, I extrapolated, was an opportunity for deep relationships, rather than casual or awkward ones. And I was relieved to discover upon watching it again that I agree with myself. In the spring semester of my senior year, the semester after I wrote the Frances Ha essay for a film culture program in one of the college houses I didn’t live in but participated in anyway, I took a graduate course for my then nearly complete master’s degree called “Populating Victorian Fiction,” which was about urban landscapes in and demographic approaches to the Victorian novel. We all had to take turns presenting one of the readings to the rest of the course, and I presented an essay by a scholar named Julian Murphet about “chiasmus” of character, that is, the rhetorical device which involves repetition of various literary elements throughout a text.
I remember applying that frame to the week’s topical novel, Jane Eyre, suggesting that the novel features many different versions of the protagonist, many different selves. Jane doesn’t develop, I interpreted; she multiplies. There are many stages of Jane, all in a line, like a paper-doll chain fanning out from one silhouette.
I found myself thinking about this, when reading my old essay—how this current Olivia and an Olivia from the past were, for a moment, in conversation about the same film (which, it might be said, is about a woman realizing that she is not the self she was nearly a decade before). I found it funny whenever I agreed with the insights 21-year-old Olivia had made about the film’s representation of adulthood and adulthood in general, finally responding to half of a discussion that took place a decade ago. It’s a funny thing when you discover wisdom you once possessed about events you had not yet experienced. It’s funnier still when one of you can share it with the other.
Similarly, I listened to Taylor Swift’s re-recording of her 2008 album Fearless recently, and I think I felt that same small tear in the spacetime-continuum for a moment when I heard the 31-year-old Taylor Swift sing lyrics written by 18-year-old Taylor Swift, advising her 15-year-old self “in your life, you’ll do things greater than dating the boy on the football team.” The mind reels.
Anyway, perhaps nothing better represents the distinction between our present selves and our undergraduate selves than how I first wrote about Frances’s financial situation, noting that one of the ways the film flags her immaturity is through her lack of financial understanding. She stresses, at numerous times throughout the film, that she is broke. She works as an apprentice at a dance company but is slowly severed from the ranks due to the company’s cutbacks.
Her economic ignorance is perhaps best, and most charmingly and innocently, exemplified in the scene in which she opens a mysterious envelope and grins ecstatically at its contents. There is then a cut to a long shot of Frances running down the steps of a bank, to the sound of chipper classical music, as she whips out her phone and bursts, “I just got a tax rebate! Want to go to dinner?” (I did not know a decade ago that this would become the most relatable five seconds in the whole of cinema. Alas.)
Later on, at the dinner, her credit card declines and, rather than suffer the embarrassment of her date paying for a check she said she would cover, she runs out of the restaurant and down several blocks to find an ATM for her debit card. She apologizes for “not being a real person,” as if the definition of reality for any adult is total organization and preparedness. I didn’t know this to be a fallacy at the time, either.
What I do see now is how the film makes room for lots of different setbacks and frustrations, lots of moments in which we feel like we’re supposed to have things more together. Frances’s financial uncertainty, maybe immaturity, is a large part of her overall dysfunction, but it’s not a character flaw so much as an opportunity for growth. Adults need to grow, too; even the most financially wary among us demonstrate moments of childishness in other ways. I realized lately that Frances is clearly an adult all along. For a time, though, she simply doesn’t allow this to be empowering the way she allows it to be belittling.
Frances’s first replacement roommates after Sophie leaves are also not “real people,” but in a different sense. Frances believes that they, Benji and Lev, two wealthy young men who live off their trust funds, are artists. Indeed, they believe this, too—Lev sculpts, while Benji writes sample scripts for Saturday Night Live and Gremlins 3, giving up on them soon after starting because he grows bored.
While Frances is never bored with her ambitions, she doesn’t know, much like the boys, that she needs to work hard at other things to make pursuing her passions possible. In another scene, she’s described as being “undatable” by the spoiled Benji, for her quirks (I found this as upsetting now as I did then). His term, evoking the separation from her friend, cements her aloneness in this immature mindset of immediate gratification and entitlement.
The boys live a sort of modern, privileged collegiate lifestyle—everything is prepaid, hookup culture is rampant, and they can pursue their artistic interests without working. Frances, however, broke and somewhat dissatisfied with their existences, doesn’t quite fit in this environment of stunted personal responsibility, as she does understand that she needs to actively pursue something in order for it to come to fruition.
Though she constantly references college (especially since she and Sophie had met in college), she doesn’t belong there. Indeed, Frances moves away from the boys and ends up back at Vassar, her alma mater, for a summer job. In order for her to entirely grow up past this college mindset, she must go back to college and immerse herself in its culture to realize she is simply too old for it. This literalizes what we have always suspected about her, that she is indeed a different version of herself than the one that attended college. For a long time, she just doesn’t want to be.
If the film begins with Frances as the child and Sophie as the mother, it concludes when Frances can prove that she, too, is a mother—specifically, a mother to Sophie. At Vassar, Frances waitresses at an alumni event at which she is not only surprised to see Sophie attending, but shocked to find Sophie stupendously drunk and hostile towards her own fiancé, the wealthy and affable banker, Patch.
That night, Sophie comes knocking on Frances’s door, drunk and sadly seeking the solace only her friend can provide. Now, Frances takes care of Sophie, making her tea and helping her throw up, and their maternal relationship has flipped; Sophie, with her shrill, intoxicated sadness, is the childlike one, while Frances, encouraging, is the mother.
This switch is reinforced, though, when Sophie confides in Frances that she had been pregnant a few months earlier, and miscarried—much to her relief. This gladness at the present impossibility of motherhood, plus Sophie’s assertion that if she hadn’t miscarried, she would have had an abortion, clearly articulates that female adulthood and motherhood are not binding associations, stuck to one another. Slowly, the film begins to define adulthood as separate from the hallmarks of “grown-up-ness”—owning a home, having a family. Adulthood is a roomier stage than what Frances has imagined.This is the only immature thing about Frances, the film realizes: the belief that being alone means that one is truly, well, alone.
This message—that even the most grown up grown-ups may not have “grown up” in every respect—is kept as a secret until about ten minutes before the film concludes. Even the close quarters in which it is revealed, in a darkly lit corner of Frances’s temporary dorm room, in a tight close-up, overhead shot on both women’s faces, keeps the dialogue simply between the two women, and the viewer.
It is a revelation that only comes after completing hard work that is not fun or immediately gratifying, but builds a work ethic and appreciation of earnings as well as of fun things. It is because of this revelation that Frances is ultimately able to achieve her dreams—she takes a job as an assistant in the dance company (a position she had previously, pridefully passed on because it would not have allowed her to practice being a dancer without having to spend most of her time doing menial, boring work), while also choreographing a routine. She succeeds because she discovers that she can still complete her more giddy and artistic endeavors precisely because of her more responsible day job.
This secret is the film’s ultimate revelation, and the moment at which Frances is fully able to receive the emotional recompense she has longed for in her quest to grow up: the reinstating of the perfect, “couple” relationship between Sophie and herself.
Earlier in the film, she laments to a friend (during her deepest moment in the fall-out with Sophie, when she learns from more distant friends of various life-altering events Sophie has gone through in Frances’ absence) about the kind of love she wants. “It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it…” she explains,
But it’s a party… and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining… and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes… but—but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual… but because… that is your person in this 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. It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s… that’s what I want out of a relationship.”
The secret world of which she speaks is the film’s revelation about growing up but not growing old—of finding both an understanding that challenges the friends to reach their potentials, as well as a love that guides them and waits for them. Frances and Sophie have previously rattled off a giant list about all the things they want to do in their lives. Sophie will be “this awesomely bitchy publishing mogul” and Frances will be “this famous modern dancer” with a book about her that Sophie will publish. “We’ll co-own a vacation apartment in Paris… And we’ll have lovers… And no children… And we’ll speak at college graduations… And honorary degrees… So many honorary degrees.” But a truly successful adult relationship, they both come to realize, is not defined by uniting in a fantastic realm of accomplishment, but by uniting in any realm of accomplishment.
In the film’s conclusion, after Frances and Sophie are at equal levels of adulthood (which also naturally involves a degree of immaturity), with Sophie married and Frances having successfully choreographed a dance that packs the theater, they stare across a room at each other while talking to other people—making secret eye contact in the manner Frances had described. This occurs after the characters have separated and grown back together, after Frances has grown up, and after Sophie proves herself a complicated adult, just as complicated as Frances, but in different ways: governed by fears and anxieties and desires just as much as her friend.
After the characters, particularly Frances, have worked to earn the love they already know exists between them, they seem proud when they visually claim (through an eyeline match between close-ups of each of their faces) the other as “their person.” Sophie’s pride in and love for Frances blooms when Frances advances professionally and matures in an economic and social sense. Frances’s pride comes from her realizing Sophie’s complicated dimensions as an adult, which Sophie overcomes to find romantic (but not unrealistically blissful) happiness with Patch.
Frances is also grateful that she is able to have her best friend back in her life, knowing that her best friend will never really leave her. Frances’s fear, earlier in the film, that Sophie had “broken up” with her has emerged from an immature understanding of their relationship—as being related to physical proximity.
This is the only immature thing about Frances, the film realizes: the belief that being alone means that one is truly, well, alone. Frances learns that she does not have to pursue company and adventure to make her life feel more meaningful.
In the time that has passed since writing my essay, I have learned that, like Frances, meaning does not go away in moments of stillness and distance, too. In the ending of the film, the eye contact between Sophie and Frances does not exist in the same frame—they look at one another across crosscuts. Now that she has grown up, Frances understands that their relationship transcends all: space, time, and even age.
Of all the lessons in Frances Ha, this is the one that I would probably offer as advice to my 21-year-old self, this sometimes-wise, sometimes-inexperienced self who would shortly subsume her twenties in a PhD program because it had been a dream of hers since she was a child, but also probably because she was unsure how to generate a life full of meaning without the structure of school to help, unsure about how to feel fulfilled without the close involvement, ever-present feedback, of friends and partners and mentors.
I might also inform my earlier self that she was wrong, in her essay, in limiting the “love story” plot of Frances Ha to the platonic couple Frances and Sophie. The most noticeable thing about the film to me now is how Frances never stops loving herself, never settles for relationships that aren’t worth her time, never stops trying to give herself a beautiful, happy life.