Radical Honesty

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances Ha | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby
When I was a junior in high school, barely hovering above the dread waterline of irredeemable unpopularity, I miraculously came to be best friends with one of our school’s most popular girls, a sophomore I’ll call “Sophie”. Sophie was bitchy, smart, widely-feared and fiercely loyal to the vanishingly small group of people she decided to anoint as “real” friends. Though we both knew that she had rescued me from certain social death, she never mentioned our obvious difference in rank or otherwise made me feel like a victim of noblesse oblige. I had earned her favor by becoming her boyfriend Nick’s math tutor—and, eventually, confidant—but to keep it required practicing a new form of friendship I’ll call Radical Honesty. No topic could ever be deemed too dark or too squirmish to be shared. For a while, Sophie and Nick and I formed an awkward platonic love triangle. Then one day Nick broke up with her, then broke up with me, and all Sophie and I had left were each other.

Sophie became one of the great loves of my early life. It was the kind of love that didn’t involve sex, though it did involve sleeping in the same bed and constantly telling one another “I love you” and making up enough secret codewords to fill a Moleskine and sealing ourselves into a private duoverse that made even the most well-intentioned visitor feel like a suppurating plague carrier. We told each other everything, purging mortifying details like Franciscan flagellants walking the Camino de Santiago. To not to do so, to ever hold back, would have been seen as the gravest of best-friendly sins.

Frances, the protagonist of Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Frances Ha, also has a best friend (and roommate) to whom she tells everything and demands the same. Her name is Sophie. And, like me and my Sophie, the Radical Honesty they practice begins to choke off all avenues of potential growth. Whereas Frances makes the sacrifices necessary to keep their hothouse doors shut, Sophie decides she wants more than this stunted-houseplant existence, and takes a less-favored friend up on her offer to share a better apartment in a choicer neighborhood. Thus begins Frances’ forced march to adulthood.

Frances Ha is about friendship, but it’s also about figuring out how to make a job out of doing what you love, and what to do about money, and how exactly to grow old when all the old people you know seem to have lost their capacity for spontaneity and joy. As in life, there are no real villains in this movie. Every time I expected Sophie (or Frances’ dance troupe boss, or one of her new, trust-funded roommates) to turn into the kind of screenplay-science antagonist specifically designed to “raise the stakes” (read: make things more movie-ish and less real), I’d be surprised by an act of grace. Even when the characters in Frances Ha lash out at one another, it reads more as an act of defense.

Watching it, I can already anticipate some of the negative reactions to this movie. There are those who will complain of its jewel-box scale that “nothing happens,” and hipster haters (this group includes self-hating hipsters) who will dismiss it out of hand for its precious characterization of white, Brownstoned, artistic strivers. But I love Frances Ha for shining a rare light on complicated truths: it is possible—even preferable—to thrive within constraints; paying rent can be a form of bravery; and when you move beyond that stage in life when time seems infinite, love becomes a zero-sum game.

As Frances moves farther out of Sophie’s orbit, she becomes a tourist in other people’s lives. At a dinner party with a group of older sophisticates, her dorm-room-confessional style of conversation makes her the object of muted eyerolls. But she feels just as alienated by hipsters her own age—not because they fail to tailgate her pop-culture references or go blank at her non-sequiturs, but because they are rich. In many ways, Frances is a proxy for the New York arrivistes of an earlier age, when it was possible to be poor, live cheap and even enjoy a certain degree of glamour. Those days, needless to say, are gone. The new bohemians are trust-funded, just as the balls-to-the-wall, it’s-passionville-or-bust artist living on scraps has been replaced with the day-jobbing, multi-tasking, part-time artist whose teeth get a good cleaning twice a year. Whereas her mortifying encounters with bougie professionals only remind Frances of how far away adulthood’s milestones (kids, jobs, 401ks) remain, the trust-fund kids leave her either begging off, apologizing or scrambling to keep up. It’s hard to say which type of casual humiliation is worse. All I know is I kept having to pause the movie when the tight feeling in my chest got to be too much.

My Sophie was also rich. Her father drove us to school in a Lexus whose leather seats had butt-warmers—an unthinkable luxury in my neck of Massachusetts, circa 1991. I will also never forget Sophie’s schoolbag, which cost three hundred dollars; was 100% genuine, creamy suede; and would literally make me wince whenever she’d throw it on the ground outside an ATM. Having a rich best friend taught me some painful lessons. I liked to think of myself as a “generous” person, when the truth was, I couldn’t afford to be. My generosity of spirit remained abstract, whereas Sophie’s hard cash made our lives more exciting in ways you could measure in mileage, brunches, movie tickets. It was with Sophie that I first began to covet money—not to buy things for myself, but to buy things for her. I needed the favors to stop accruing on one side of the ledger. Watching Sophie move through the world with so much confidence, I realized it was much easier to be kind, to act brave, and to feel free when you didn’t have to worry about, er, being broke. Somehow, instead of making me feel worse, this revelation actually blunted my shame at feeling so pinched and cautious and scared all the time. I guess I have Sophie to thank for that.

It’s the combined weight of revelations like these that sends Frances scurrying back to the comparative safety of her old college—this time as a low-wage employee. Back in the cosseted world of rolling woods and grand buildings, Frances can no longer ignore the contrast between her wished-for life and reality. And yet, if Frances’ post-college life isn’t what it could be, the student life she remains nostalgic for isn’t particularly appealing either. Nor does Sophie’s new life turn out to be nearly as charmed as she’d imagined.

The Frances and Sophie of Frances Ha are far warmer, wiser and tolerant than Sophie and I were at that age. Our friendship is the story of apocalyptic flameout; theirs, a story of redemption. After college, my Sophie and her girlfriend (she turned out to be gay, but I still believe that had nothing to do with our friendship) moved in to the spare room in the house I shared with my boyfriend, where we learned our love for one another just couldn’t be spliced four ways. We wanted things to go back to how they were, to keep telling each other everything, but by now we realized secrets were a form of currency too. Our lovers wouldn’t accept recycled intimacies — they wanted our first, best selves. Besides, the juiciest gossip was always the sex stuff, the pillow talk, the treacherous doubts you have staring into the refrigerator late at night. Sharing these began to feel like a betrayal to the ones we loved, well, more. Unlike Sophie and Frances, we were unable to lay down new ground rules and figure out a different but still-satisfying way to be together. Instead we stockpiled our secrets, avoided, then accused one another, and hosted increasingly volatile shouting matches in my grassless backyard until Sophie and her girlfriend packed up her things one day and left. No goodbyes.

Considering the aggressively modern ennui Frances Ha portrays, the fact that it is filmed in black and white seems odd at first. While the novelty wears off quickly, the feeling that this is a period piece lingers. The period happens to be one minute ago, but even as we live it, this era of Now seems more fragile and uncertain and restless than most. Stripping it of Technicolor is Baumbach’s way of keeping the emphasis on the film’s more universal themes, to be sure. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the digital age has altered the tenor of our relationships to the point where it’s become far easier to mellow into maturity, to be the Frances and Sophie of Frances Ha. These are the questions I ask myself about Generation Z, or π, or whatever their latest hashtag might be: Girded with iPhones and Google Glass and apps that find dates for them, do they charge less hard at life? Are their highs less high and their lows less low, making compromise easier? And, if so, is that…well, good?

The answer Frances Ha gives seems to be a guarded “yes.” Frances’ transition to adulthood is not without difficulty, but she’s not leaving any steaming, twisted guardrails in her wake, either. Looking back, my own fiery friend break-up seems like an anachronism from that misty pre-Facebook time when break-ups were forever and you could love someone so much it just turned to hate. This isn’t an era for haters, Frances Ha reminds me, it’s an era for likers. Maybe it’s actually the Era of Friendship, or at least an easier time to be friends.

I don’t know. I hope so.