How shall we describe that curious beast, the Millennial? What is it? What does it want? Within what span of years, exactly, was it born? These questions vex writers of the popular discourse who take an interest in generational trends. For those armchair sociologists, I present a new specimen of the breed: the protagonist of Frances Ha.
Embodied by Greta Gerwig, the Frances of the title navigates her late twenties in the frame of a black-and-white film directed by Noah Baumbach. She chases money, shelter and professional satisfaction, but most fervently, she chases the best friend whose affections drift so slowly and surely away. It’s an interesting tale, though let’s detour before entering review territory and instead rendezvous with my earlier assertion.
Frances struggles with challenges that are fairly emblematic of the Millennial experience. She can’t get enough money to afford her lifestyle. Her education and interests fall hopelessly wide of the job market’s bullseye. Most of her relationships with friends and family suffer fracture by the ever-shifting living arrangements and attentions of early 21st Century middle class Americans. A snide Boomer could easily polish off some speculation about her growing up under glowing praise and encouragement, careening towards unemployed aimlessness due to the overconfidence, artsiness and (let us shudder) entitlement so common among her peers.
Let us count our blessings, then, that the director is no such complainer. Indeed, Mr. Baumbach has cast his girlfriend in a more sympathetic role. He skimps on the self involvement that often engulfs his main characters, providing just a couple of scenes (a dinner, a talk with an employer) that display Frances’ narcissistic aversion to responsibility. While this flaw proves relevant to the character’s circumstances, our perspective pushes further, seeing how Frances’ intelligence, compassion and spirit also shape her life.
She wanders through underemployment, itinerancy and isolation because someone in her position does not encounter effective guidelines. A credit card in the mail undermines the threat of financial insolvency. The friends and family whose places can accomodate crash landings soften the blow of losing residence. The kinetic shuffle of the young, urban social scene promises constant stimulation, whether through new faces or electronic correspondence. Frances will never starve just as surely as she will never be a star of the dance world. There is no dangling possibility of satisfaction to be had if she gets her stuff together and no looming threat of terrible failure. In this vacuum of consequence, what sort of meaningful struggle can we expect? Like many young people now short on both livelihoods and life goals, she can only stumble about, guided by the few things that inspire her.
And here, finally, with her inspiration, do we see the admiring rendition of this generation. She values her art and she values her friend. Pursuit of those things demonstrates this fictional Millennial’s personal virtue. Unfazed by the lack of true sticks and carrots around her, Frances maintains a sense of what’s important to her. Much more than any paean to social media savvy or treatise on the character-building effect of recessions, this vote of confidence regarding young people’s unerring sense of personal values should give us hope for their future.