Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
May 22, 2013
Yes, the title character of “Frances Ha” is a New York woman in her 20s struggling with her professional life and the romantic and platonic tiers of her personal life. Still, don’t ask Greta Gerwig, who plays Frances and co-wrote the film with director and Gerwig’s reported boyfriend Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg”), how Frances would interact with the girls on “Girls.” She doesn’t see an overlap.
“[‘Girls’ deals] with a slightly earlier moment of life, but for me I just feel like films and television exist in their own universes and they have their own rules,” says the 29-year-old Sacramento native by phone while walking to her New York apartment. “I love ‘Girls’ and I think Lena’s a genius, but I don’t see the ability to place a character. [Laughs] … Frances only exists in this movie, and this is the only thing that we’ll ever see of her.”
Perhaps it’s a testament to the specificity of the characters, despite their universal experiences. In “Frances Ha,” opening Friday, 27-year-old Frances is familiar but unique, hoping her apprenticeship at a dance company will finally turn into a steady gig while wishing the dynamic with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) could stay the way it was in college--when they were inseparable and didn’t have to worry as much about being on different trajectories.
Speaking of trajectories: Gerwig (“Damsels in Distress,” “Arthur”) made the miniscule "LOL" and "Hannah Takes the Stairs" while living in Logan Square in 2006. With another likable, deceptively complex performance in "Frances Ha," she continues to chart upwards.
“Frances Ha” is a perceptive vision of people in their 20s. What’s something you think people in that stage of life don’t get enough credit for and something they deserve to be taken to task for?
I think that people in their 20s actually aren’t given enough credit for their ambition. I think people see [them as] ... directionless or somehow lacking in ambition, and I don’t think that’s true at all. I feel like most of the people I know are incredibly ambitious, as is the character of Frances. It’s just not necessarily working out for them, which is different than not having ambition at all. And I think they need to be taken to task for how entitled they feel. ... I think that’s kind of a sad psychological state to be in because the universe doesn’t owe us anything.
How new do you think that is? A lot of people think that entitlement has come along with the Millennial generation.
There’s still this Wild West idea of getting rich quick or having everything being solved very quickly by a job or a pill or getting famous. And I don’t think there’s a lot of built-in reward or examples of persistence. Sometimes also the current generation absorbs the criticisms of the culture as a whole. It’s just that the young people take the brunt of it because they seem to be the ones that aren’t bringing it. [Laughs] I don’t think that’s necessarily true; I think we’re living through a moment where there’s a lot of instantaneous gratification. I think that that holds true for people in their 60s as well as for younger people.
So we can blame Mark Zuckerberg and move on.
Yeah, we can just blame Google and Zuckerberg. No, I don’t know. [Laughs] I totally sympathize with it. Working is not instantly rewarding. It’s a long process, and it’s much easier to just feed whatever dopamine cycles exist in your brain in instant gratification ways. I get it; I do it. [Laughs] I’m not above it. I think it’s a general malaise.
The movie taps into the challenge of figuring out friendships as they develop in your 20s. How much did you relate to those struggles?
Noah and I wrote the script together, and while we were writing it—it took a long time to write, like a year to write—we were both drawing upon our experiences of friendship in our 20s and earlier, and for him later. And these moments of pretty painful transitions, which I think are not gender specific. Noah put a lot of his male friendships in, and I put a lot of my female friendships in. It’s hard to even describe it to other people because I think that there’s just not a lot of language to talk about what it means to stop being friends with someone or to have a friendship change. Because it’s not a relationship that’s codified in any way. You can’t marry your friends! [Laughs] I mean, you could [Laughs], but there’s no way that friendship is recognized in any legal way. It’s not family; it’s not marriage. It’s something else, but it’s just as powerful. And when it goes away it just feels like it’s slipping away, but it doesn’t feel as dramatic as a breakup, but it is internally. It’s just that you don’t have a way to describe it.
Do people deal with it in the cliché ways that they deal with a romantic breakup, like a pint of ice cream and sappy movies?
Yeah! We were talking about it in “Frances” in terms of—she starts drinking too much, trying to befriend another girl and make her the next one. She tries to drown her sorrows. She goes to Paris because she’s heartbroken. [Laughs] That’s the most rom-commy thing ever.
The movie plays with this idea of being undateable, which is sort of a joke or a measure of pride for Frances. Can anyone actually be undateable?
I think the way Frances means it is, like you said, a point of pride. I think it’s more, like so many things in Frances’ life, the thing that’s a point of pride has now become something that’s a problem. Her being an apprentice at the dance company when she was 21, that’s a point of pride. At 27 it’s no longer a great thing. I don’t think anybody is actually undateable, but I think that people at different points in their lives can make themselves unavailable to that, and I think Frances is very much doing that. We were very aware of not wanting to make her sad girl who can’t get a date. We wanted it to be something that was open to her but that she was just rejecting. I think she makes the decision to make herself undateable in the movie, but I don’t think anybody can be inherently undateable.
If you tell a friend that you recognize some of them in Frances, will they take that as a compliment or something negative?
I don’t know. I hope [she’s] recognizable, but I think Frances is ultimately a character who experiences redemption and that she creates her own moment of grace. Despite her shortcomings as a person, I feel that if you were told you were like her, I would think that would indicate some kind of inherent ability to pull one’s self up by one’s bootstraps.
People have commented that “Frances Ha” has a different tone from Noah’s recent directorial efforts—more warmth, less bitterness. How much credit do you deserve for that?
I think it was one of those really incredible collaborations. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, but it’s hard to identify what’s exactly Noah and what’s exactly me. It feels like it’s the movie that neither one of us could have written without the other or made without the other. I don’t really credit myself; I credit the collaboration. If it feels different, I think it’s because of the collaboration.
A movie she didn’t understand when she was younger: “Turner and Hooch.” “I thought it was so strange. I didn’t know if it was supposed to be funny but I was kind of scared by it and it was too loud. It was confusing. [Laughs]”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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