Change of Heart

Why I Changed My Mind About… Frances Ha

Kicking off a new series about the films our writers have reconsidered, Ella Kemp on going from Frances Na to Frances Ya

I can’t remember how old I was when I first watched Frances Ha, but I know I wasn’t old enough. Not because the film is packed with explicit material, “hide-her-eyes!” scenes or crass jokes, but because Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig tapped into a very specific sort of existential ennui. One where you’re at an age when things should make sense, and they just don’t. An age where, as Frances says, you’re “so embarrassed” because you’re “not a real person yet.”

When I watched Frances Ha as a teenager, it got on my nerves. I watched it because I was looking to study film, and it was the one film everyone was quoting on Tumblr. It was always the same few lines and the same few screenshots – the sort to make you feel like you’d seen the film when you knew you hadn't. I knew that Noah Baumbach had directed it, based on a script he had co-written with Greta Gerwig, who was subsequently cast as Frances. The director has previously worked with Gerwig on 2010’s Greenberg, but Frances Ha is the film that really put him on the map (in my Tumblr-adjacent circles at least), while it probably remains his most widely celebrated film today.

It’s a movie about love and independence, but the platonic kind, mostly. It’s about 27-year-old dancer Frances Halladay, who has to adjust to her best friend Sophie breaking free and moving further into adult life without her. Any young woman, or any young person full stop, seemed perfectly primed to see themselves – either directly or emotionally – in this film. The pressure to love it felt immense – to quote it as a major part of my personality. Anything else seemed like a failure. But watching for the first time I was frustrated by the offbeat humour, the way Frances smiles when she’s uncomfortable and thinks out loud and struggles to find her purpose in life but keeps dancing. I wasn’t a particularly troubled teenager, but I was still a teenager. It all seemed a bit silly.

I let Frances Ha rest for a few years, studied a lot, worked a lot, became a film critic. Then I rewatched the film last year, aged 23, and everything felt brand new. My first feeling after this second viewing was one of deep shame, a sense of kicking my younger self for not understanding, and for missing out on the last few years of worshipping at this film’s altar. Suddenly it all made sense: celebratory dinners after getting a tax rebate, jabs at New York artists too rich to be artists but too artistic to be properly rich, three-hour brunch friends, the knowing teases about being undateable. Was it because I had now seen so much more from Baumbach and Gerwig, or was it because I’d grown so much myself?

I credit my change of heart to a specific, serendipitously life-affirming moment in the film. Frances runs down the street and all the way home – for no other reason than finishing her day, there’s no particular celebration – to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” It’s a giddy, almost euphoric moment in a completely ordinary setting that felt like a bolt of lighting, reminding me of New Year’s Eve from a few weeks before (you know, when 2020 felt like a distant concept still full of hope). The song came on a few minutes after midnight, and it was one of those rare moments where everyone in the room just agreed. The mood lifted and vibrated with energy. I felt that sensation while rewatching Frances Ha, and I felt it again when rewatching it in 2021, a year on, worn down by everything the last twelve months has thrown at us – but galvanised once again, for a brief moment, by this diamond in the rough.

There’s a moment in the film where Frances and her roommates, Benji and Lev (why has Adam Driver gone on to superstardom – which is deserved – but Michael Zegen remains so much less celebrated?) are talking about age, and Frances is told, aged 27, that she is old. I’m sure this line reads differently to long-time cinephiles, but I know now I was too young for Frances Ha that first time around. I’ll be 25 in a few months – two years to go before that line starts to sting. Still, too old will always be better than too young, and Frances Ha will always be here to remind me just how good that can feel.

Frances Ha is now streaming on Prime Video.

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