What do you do when your best friend for life – that pal from college who you live with, cook with, exercise with, share beers and secrets with, fall asleep on the subway with – has decided to make a life without you?
That's the dilemma for 27-year-old Frances (Greta Gerwig) in Noah Baumbach's latest film, "Frances Ha." Sophie (Mickey Sumner), the platonic love of her life, has a 1 percenter boyfriend, a promising career and now wants to upgrade from their bohemian Brooklyn apartment.
Frances, meanwhile, is stuck, broke, clinging to the dregs of a dance career and hopelessly undateable – a diagnosis she repeats like a tagline. The two part ways, somewhat voluntarily, and Frances is left to drift into adulthood on her own.
The unmoored, confused protagonist is somewhat of a trope in Noah Baumbach's repertoire, which includes "Greenberg" and "The Squid and the Whale." But unlike many of Baumbach's previous characters, whose dire circumstances weigh them down, Frances meets her future's uncertainty with a refreshing lightness of step – and not the least because she is an apprentice at a modern dance company.
The buoyancy of "Frances Ha" has at least something to do with the Gerwig, who co-wrote the script in addition to starring in the film.
"I would just look forward to when she would send me stuff she was working on. It was always so entertaining and funny and inspiring to me," Baumbach says.
Gerwig and Baumbach – who have been "quietly dating" for a well over a year – began exchanging ideas for a film over emails after her performance in 2010's "Greenberg." She was 26 when they started working on the script.
"I was definitely passing through this time while I was working on it," says Gerwig, now 29. "I felt very connected with the feeling – your youth is gone and you have not gone with it."
Baumbach says he always pictured her playing the lead; however, Gerwig did not, and considers the writing and the acting work on the film completely different experiences.
"In some ways it did feel like the first film I had written," says Gerwig, who in addition to many her many previous acting roles, has a fair number of writing credits. She describes the writing work she did before "Francis Ha" as devised rather than written — often what she calls filler for what would later be improvised.
"It wasn't scratching that specific itch of wanting to organize words in specific order and rhythm and having people who are great actors say them, and that was really amazing about this process," she says.
What emerged from their collaboration is a playful, at times laugh-out-loud-hilarious meditation on what it means to be young and struggling in New York City. It also resists many coming-of-age conventions: Frances's Christmas with her family is heartwarming, not strife-filled and frustrating (Gerwig's parents play Frances's in the film). Her spontaneous escape to Paris is disappointing, saddening even – not the cinematic utopia the city of lights usually offers.
Focusing on the friendship between Sophie and Frances – or really, its absence – "Frances Ha" also lacks a central romance for its title character (and passes the Bechdel test with flying colors).
"The journey that Francis goes on is really genderless in a lot of ways. It's more important that she's this 27-year-old human than she's this 27-year-old woman," says Gerwig, "because we're never exploring who she is in a heterosexual relationship, then it's about friendship and ambition and not about that other thing, it's more of a human story."
The film is already being compared to the work of Woody Allen, particularly "Manhattan," as it was also shot in black and white. "The character and the story and the anthropology of the movie was so contemporary that I thought the black and white contrasted that and supported it," Baumbach says. "It made it both old and new at the same time."