Much of the buzz on Noah Baumbach’s new Frances Ha is that it’s his most “humane” and “sincere” film, which may be true, but it actually has more in common with his first film, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, than one might think, as Kicking also has a very caring core beneath its hyper-verbal, ironic dialogue.
Both films deal with transitional moments in young lives. In Kicking, it’s the first post-college year. The film’s characters, ill-prepared for the “real life” of work and adulthood, exist in a kind of limbo, lingering on or near campus, spouting off about philosophy and pop-culture. Time is still marked by semesters, indicated by title cards. Frances turns its attention to characters in their late 20’s, still floundering in terms of careers, living an almost nomadic existence of constantly switching apartments and crashing on couches. Here time is marked by the various addresses of Greta Gerwig's Frances, which flash occasionally on screen. Stylistically, the films are quite different, but the evolution seems organic: Kicking’s characters cannot stop talking, while the characters of Frances are either silently absorbed in cellphone screens or speaking a kind of insider’s language, old jokes and references that are deeply engrained and which may not necessarily be clear to us as viewers. Frances’ evocative black-and-white photography destabilizes the high-tech trappings of its characters, creating a strange, timeless feel: if they weren’t curled up in bed with their laptops this could be almost any era. It's worth noting that Kicking also utilizes a bit of black-and-white: the heartfelt center of the film is a dissolving relationship story told through flashbacks that begin with black-and-white freeze frames. This is sometimes read as “paralysis,” preserving the idealized past, but it’s probably not that simple. Broken-hearted Grover seems ultimately to scour these memories looking for a way forward, even if the very moving final scene leaves us poised in the past, at a moment of hope that we, but not the characters, realize is ill-fated.
While one certainly could see the films as critiques of characters who are stunted, unable to grow up (“I’m not a grown-up,” Frances explains to a friend when her credit card is rejected in a restaurant), there’s ultimately more fondness than satire in both of them (whereas Baumbach’s Squid and the Whale is a more blistering, corrosive look at academia). In Kicking, Eric Stoltz’s Chet, the perpetual student, speaks of his eventual epiphany,, the moment where he quits trying to fight his immersion in college town culture and recognizes “This IS my life.” Frances’ titular character also moves toward embracing her often frustrating existence, and we see halting progress at the end as she accepts her failed dreams of being a dancer and settles into a role as a choreographer. “I like things that look like mistakes,” she says of her young charges' performance near the end, which might be read as a commentary on her own life. The film’s last-second explanation of its title, a beautifully wordless moment, also echoes Frances’ statement, which resonates thematically in interesting ways the more you think about it.
Frances and Sophie (Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner):
Kicking's Grover and Jane (Josh Hamilton and Olivia d'Abo).