Someone asked me if director Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is a coming-of-age story. The answer gave me pause. A floundering 27-year-old named Frances (Greta Gerwig) does move closer to adulthood in the course of the movie. But Baumbach’s winning and provocative film, co-written with his Greenberg star Gerwig, is more about the fierce importance of friendships in that drifty time when “real” life is supposed to begin but the start button remains worrisomely hard to locate. While it treads much of the same ground as Gerwig’s earlier film Lola Versus and Lena Dunham’s Girls — well-educated, artsy 20-somethings struggling professionally and personally in New York City — Frances Ha is focused on a genuine life issue that doesn’t get much play in movies: the challenges of platonic love and the complicated passions of friendship.
Frances is fond of telling people that she and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) “are the same person with different hair.” They went to college together at Vassar and, at the beginning of the movie, share an apartment in Brooklyn and take “sips” off each other’s cigarettes. The screenplay is a smart jumble of observed scraps of conversation that make sense only to the two of them and tend to the sweetly inane. “Are you drunk?” Frances giggles to Sophie on the phone. “I love you. Dumpling House!” Listening, her boyfriend eyes her balefully; there’s no room for him in this equation. Sophie is Frances’ person and, Frances thinks, vice versa. They intend to have great professional success, receive many honorary degrees between them and have no children; Sheryl Sandberg wouldn’t have to tell them to lean in.
(MORE: TIME’s Review of Lola Versus)
Or that’s what they’d like to think. In truth, Sophie has a decent career in publishing, not exactly a thriving industry, and Frances is barely hanging on to an apprenticeship at a modern-dance company. (She may be the world’s clumsiest aspiring modern dancer. Whereas in romantic comedies when the beautiful starlet is forced to take a fall or be smeared with ice cream so the audience will think she’s just like them, when this girl trips, you believe it.) Frances is older than the confused characters in Baumbach’s debut, the 1995 feature Kicking and Screaming, and thus more pathetic. Also, she has no sense that the balance of her friendship with Sophie is off. Clingy Frances zealously guards Sophie’s attention. “There’s no service,” she says when they’re on the subway together and Sophie is staring at her smartphone. “Sometimes there is, for a second,” Sophie says. And while Frances refuses to ditch Sophie to move in with her boyfriend when he asks, Sophie leaps at a chance to move to Tribeca with a different friend. That’s the first fracture in their friendship, which soon teeters on the brink of dissolution. The very thing that Frances thought would make her feel safe in her sea of confusion turns out to be not that reliable after all; while friendship can offer sanctuary, no one can take refuge in it forever.
The movie is shot in lush black and white, an aesthetic that speaks to Baumbach’s admiration for French new wave filmmakers, from François Truffaut to Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard, specifically his Band of Outsiders. There is also a great deal of Diane Keaton’s gawky, goofy Annie Hall in Frances, even if she’s less concerned than Annie was with boyfriends and more focused on girlfriends. (Gerwig is an enchanting actress, but in Frances Ha she adroitly plays a girl who would like to be as enchanting as Annie Hall but can’t pull it off. She’s nearly as socially awkward as Ben Stiller’s Greenberg.) Baumbach’s choice of black and white also reflects something about Frances’ age, that point in life when one longs to be taken seriously, longs to be viewed through the lens that people often associate with black-and-white imagery, the affirmation of the romantic, the serious, the significant.
Although the time frame is different, Frances Ha made me think of Meg Wolitzer’s new best seller The Interestings, which follows a group of young people from their teen years in the Watergate era to New York City in the 1980s and ’90s, when they try to live up to their early categorization as gifted and talented. “You guys are like magic,” Frances tells the two young men who become, briefly, her roommates (the movie is structured around her ever-changing, never-improving addresses). The line encapsulates so eloquently the joyful opportunities of youth. You can see her febrile mind taking pictures of Benji (Michael Zegen) and Lev (Adam Driver, a regular on Girls), who are indeed cool as well as far more callow than they know, and imagining her new, important and interesting life. These are fantasies the middle-class girl from California is having a hard time living up to (like Gerwig, Frances is from Sacramento; her look-alike mother and father play Frances’ parents when she visits home).
Movies about female friendship tend to cover very specific ground. There’s the lousy-husbands empowerment flick (Thelma & Louise, The First Wives Club, Waiting to Exhale) and the Hallmark-style ode to gal pals (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Steel Magnolias, Beaches — oh Lord, Beaches). There’s a subset of the genre in which the friendships go beyond fraught to scary (Heavenly Creatures, Girl Interrupted, 3 Women, The Dreamlife of Angels, Single White Female). Cristian Mungiu has carved out a dark niche with two brilliant movies focused on female friends, dealing with illegal abortion in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and religious fervor in Beyond the Hills. But the mundane, the nitty-gritty of the way friendship works, how it has to adapt and be flexible, that doesn’t get much attention, even though it is the stuff our lives are made of. The director Nicole Holofcener looked at it in Walking and Talking and, comically, in Friends With Money. The indies My Summer of Love and Ghost World got at real truths in packages that were, respectively, sexy and playfully eccentric. But I’m not sure I’ve seen anything that illustrates the loneliness hidden inside young friendships quite as truthfully as the very sincere Frances Ha does; it’s a small and special movie.