About twelve blocks away from the apartment Frances (Greta Gerwig) shares with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) in Prospect Heights, which is right by the towering Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch that overlooks a stretch of downtown Brooklyn and the park, is the apartment I’ve been living in since November 2020. Really, the street I’ve been living on since I moved to New York in late 2016. Along the nearly straight path from hers to mine, or vice versa, restaurants have come and gone, shops have switched out owners, and other small businesses and wealthy residents have played musical chairs with the growing property markets. The walk is the same with your headphones on, the ebb and flow of crowd density soundtracked by Ella Fitzgerald or Lady Gaga or Barbra Streisand; lots of white people and nannies of color pushing children along the sidewalk.
For however much change Park Slope has experienced in the decade since Frances Ha was released in 2013, it has felt barely noticeable since I arrived. If anything, that the world has spun so violently forward and with such speed has made it feel like time has slowed down. Ginger’s survived the pandemic, and Good Judy moved in where Excelsior was, but the bar patrons’ fashions have taken on the kind of calculated grunge affect that feels out of an easy temporality: part-’90s mess, part-2020s libertinism.
What would Gerwig’s character wear today? Would she still be sporting that charcoal leather jacket, all bunched up and boxy, her backpack bouncing up and down behind her while her floral dress pirouettes in the wind to David Bowie? Or would she, instead, be wearing an actual graphic tee, Ziggy Stardust splashed across the front, its texture flaking off?
Almost doubtless, she’d be where we left her: slowly coming to terms with the place her art, her dancing and choreography, has in her life in relation to the crumbling landscape of theater and dance around her. Even her boss, Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise), tells her that the dance company is doing poorly enough that they can’t use Frances for the holiday shows, much less add her to the official company. Maybe she would be putting on a show here and there, maybe something at LifeWorld or The Tank or something. Perhaps she’d either ascend the non-profit ladder or think of it as her day job and, as the kids say, quiet quit, putting her energy into moderately attended performance pieces. There would probably be absent the coffee table book she and Sophie aspired to publish together. (How’s the publishing industry doing by the way?)
When Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig set out to capture a tragicomic portrait of a young woman who has to grow up and reconcile with the way that life changes in your 20s, perhaps they imagined that, despite the downward slope millennials were precariously balanced upon, one might find a way, if not out, then through it. Through the economic disaster and political uncertainty (these were the Obama years) and the careening future of New York for young aspiring artists in general. The end of Frances Ha is supposed to be a happy one, a young woman who finds balance between what she wants to do, who she wants to be, and the dynamic she wants to have with the person who means the most to her.
And yet that sociopolitical and economic context has seemed to congeal, and, from my vantage point, millennials and gen Z’ers look increasingly alike, delineated primarily by the degree to which they are willing to embrace sincerity, authenticity, and commitment to personal/political ethos in a climate where those things are not valued.
When Benji (Michael Zegen) and Frances share an exchange, it fizzles with, “27 is old though.” Frances pouts at the thought, as her dreams become further to grasp but her desire becomes compounded. (It’s a sentiment echoed in the collaborator’s followup Mistress America in 2014.)
Yet, it is unnerving that, at age 29, I can still ask my peers and strangers and whatever at a party or at a bar or at a sex party, “What’s the dream?” Perhaps a dull question on my part, but I did assume that it would become an irrelevant one by the time I reached her age, or mine. (The cheekiest answers are always, “I do not dream of labor.” Which is besides the point of my question.)
My friends and I are, as far as I can tell or say, doing pretty well. We care about each other, cultivate meaningful connections and community, engage with art and culture, dance to drown in the sensory pleasures of all the lights and sound and sweat, and, all the while, bitch and complain about all the normal things. But we’re all as old if not older than Frances. Most of us have roommates and day jobs we’re indifferent about. Though several have started pairing off, enough are still single and mad about it. Few of us are financially sustained by our vocations.
It’s not a bad life by any means, and you could argue not incorrectly that there is certainly a degree of privilege to have acquired as much as we have. (“I’m poor,” Frances, and several acquaintances have said. “That’s actually offensive to poor people,” Benji replies.) But I can only speak for myself when I say that I thought, as all young people do, things would be a little bit different. If not in my life specifically, then at least in terms of the broader context of how I, and my friends, moved about the world, the way we played with pleasure and professionalism. The cadence of our speech is less literate Baumbach bon motts and more a steady stream of “it’s giving” and “slay”.
Again, it isn’t a bad thing, but I think it is reflective of the changing assumptions and expectations of younger people, the continued unlivability of the city, and the general artistic and structural poverty of a system that wouldn’t allow us to succeed into a level of stability if we wanted. It feels like time itself is in arrested development.
I keep having conversations with people who have recently watched Frances Ha, sometimes their first viewing. We come away with the same thing: how much has and hasn’t changed, and the way it’s happened in a manner none of us thought it would.
Greta Gerwig started her career in a place not unlike the one my friends and I occupy, laughing and taking the stairs. Now she has a gigantic blockbuster in Barbie. That film’s attempt to be, and quash the notion that it can be, everything belies, to me, a slight ambivalence about how she’s changed and how the world around her has, but not necessarily for the better. Enough of the voice of the screwball vis-a-vis Brooklyn is heard in Barbie to satiate most viewers. But it’s telling that Stereotypical Barbie’s (Margot Robbie) existential crisis, the one that drives the movie, sounds a lot like the time Frances apologetically says to someone, “I’m so embarrassed. I’m not a real person yet.” Who amongst us?