Apologies to all those millennials who buy into the idea that 30 is the new 20: Writer and actress Greta Gerwig thinks you need to grow up already. “At 27, your youth is over,” she says. “It’s done.”
Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but it’s this theme of growing up in a climate of postponed maturation that the 29-year-old explores in her new movie, Frances Ha, which she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach.
Gerwig plays Frances, a struggling 27-year-old dancer in New York who’s all flailing arms and broken dreams in the looming face of adulthood. The black-and-white film, which had a limited release last month to critical acclaim and opens locally this weekend, is a poignant, funny portrait of a very flawed and very real character with oversized creative ambitions. And Gerwig’s honest, endearing performance gives merit to the buzz about this new indie “it” girl.
The contrast between Gerwig and her character is an interesting one. Frances is often immature and selfish; she says the wrong thing at the wrong time, and her dreams of becoming a professional dancer frequently seem more like delusions than career goals.
Gerwig, on the other hand, is remarkably articulate, an emerging writer and actress who has already worked with Woody Allen and Whit Stillman and is in a relationship with the esteemed Baumbach, whose acclaimed, if polarizing, earlier efforts include The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding. Clearly, Gerwig has already embraced adulthood; Frances has to be guided there kicking and screaming over the course of the film. Butthrough both Gerwig’s writing and performanceFrances is never presented as an object of ridicule or judgment.
“I think both in the writing and in the acting, we really talked about not wanting to sell anyone out or make anyone an asshole,” she says. “We wanted to give everybody a fair hearing, and Frances most of all.”
Indeed, part of what makes Frances so relatable is that her best and worst qualities are inseparable.
“You don’t get the great qualities of Frances without the bad qualities of Frances,” Gerwig says.
“On the one hand, she really loves big. On the other hand, she’s incredibly jealous and possessive and smothering. … What’s great about Frances growing up in a way is that both [traits] get dampened as she grows. Her love gets a little bit dampened, but she also gets to be a little more tolerable.”
Baumbach’s filming process added to the honesty and authenticity of the characters, says Gerwig. Frances Ha was shot piecemeal: The actors received the script only for their specific scenes. (Actor Michael Zegen, who plays Frances’ friend and roommate, told The Huffington Post that until he saw the completed film himself, he had no idea what it was about.)
“I think one thing that happens sometimes is that people read a whole script, and then they contextualize their character in terms of the whole trajectory of the movie,” Gerwig says. Instead, “the actors were more capable of investing into the entire lives of their characters, because they weren’t encumbered by the idea of what the whole film was.”
The cast of Frances Ha was also afforded a luxurious shooting schedule50 days, a rarity for an indie. Baumbach capitalized on this, having actors do take after take after take. In a piece Gerwig wrote recently for The New York Times Magazine, she describes doing 42 takes in a row of a single 28-second scene, a process that allowed her to experiment and constantly make discoveries on camera.
“It was kind of the best way to make a movie because we had time to get it the best it could be,” Gerwig says. “Sometimes you don’t have that luxury, and you just have to get it and move on. … That has its own logic in that it gives [the film] an energy and immediacy, but it’s not how every movie wants to be shot.”
Frances Ha, a film in which the precise rhythm of the language meant that actors needed to get their lines and pacing exactly right, demanded to be shot in multiple takes, Gerwig explains. Unlike earlier scripts Gerwig co-wrotemumblecore films such as Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends (both directed by Joe Swanberg), where the screenwriters created situations and characters and then let actors improvise to find the language themselvesFrances Ha was the first script Gerwig worked on that she felt stood on its own as a piece of writing.
“This was kind of my maiden voyage working on screenplays this way, and I really loved it,” she says.
Gerwig’s next project, a still-untitled collaboration with Baumbach that’s currently in post-production, also centers around a 20-something woman living in New York. But Gerwig, despite her convictions about the fleeting, slippery nature of youth, is not wanting to make a statement about her generation with these films. Instead, she says, her aim is to tell stories about specific characters in specific situations.
In that aim, Gerwig and Baumbach succeed. Frances is not a millennial caricature but an individual with her own quirks and flaws and ambitions. Perhaps that’s why Frances seems so human as she trips complacently through friendships and living situations until adulthood grabs heras it eventually does us alland forces her to confront realities about her life and her choices.
“That’s something I wanted to explore in the movie,” Gerwig says. “You aren’t aware when your youth is over, only when it’s gone.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Top flight.”