"I feel bad," says Frances (Greta Gerwig), very early in this film. She says that quite a bit. That's because Frances doesn't understand her privilege, even though it's only somewhat her fault. She's 27, living in New York City, has a college degree and is under-employed as a dancer, her chosen profession. She's got the American economic mobility system's unspoken assets on her side: race, beauty, creative-class allies, a friend network and a middle-income parental safety net if it comes down to that.
But New York in 2013 is no longer the magical wonderland of Just Kids. Back then, according to Patti Smith, the city was a bohemian holding pen that housed her and Robert Mapplethorpe as they lived the lives of romantically starving art-urchins until boom! they were famous. It's different now. To be not fully making a living at the thing you want to do is a full-time panic attack. The grasping youngsters nipping at your heels think you're ancient by 30 and they'll do what it takes to push you out of the way. Meanwhile people your own age with great apartments, great jobs, great incomes and the ability to eat in cool restaurants are all the evidence you need that you're losing. For Frances the creative life is one of constant upheaval -- a layoff here, an apartment bounce there -- and it threatens to permanently douse her fire. "Do you know that I'm actually poor?" the couch-surfing heroine says to trust-funded temporary roommate Benji (Michael Zegen). "You're not," he counters. "That's offensive to actual poor people." He's right, of course, but to say this to a person without next month's rent money after you've just purchased three pairs of expensive vintage sunglasses on eBay is still a dick move.
In director Noah Baumbach's black-and-white examination of dwindling prospects (co-written by Gerwig), Frances is the logical extension of Lena Dunham's Hannah on Girls, that is if five years down the road Hannah is still struggling to make something of herself. Life pummels Frances with indignities and near-homelessness, but she's not giving in. She makes weird, irresponsible decisions (get a new credit card, go to Paris!), stares opportunities for dull stability in the face and turns them down, seems not to have an objective grasp of her own strengths and weaknesses, has trouble with inertia and manages to surround herself with people who are losing patience with all of it. And yet in spite of this, even through her own bouts of occasional self-pity, she's still not the most annoying person in the world. In fact, you root for her.
That's thanks to Baumbach's affectionate direction and Gerwig's delicately balanced performance. This isn't a Deschanel-asks-the-phone-if-it's-raining marathon, it's a love letter to being young and tenacious and unformed, defiant in the face of aggressive careerist sobriety. When Gerwig run-dances down a Manhattan street to David Bowie's "Modern Love," it's exuberant and joyful in a way that movies rarely allow young people to be anymore, as though fictional film characters have gotten themselves caught up in the demand for productivity, too. You want her to keep running until she gets to the place where she feels even kinda-sorta accomplished and realizes that it was never that bad to start with. To gut-hate Frances is like hating yourself for not doing better and then hating yourself for moping about it a little and then hating yourself for eating a bunch of ice cream to soothe your temporary angst; it's pointless and it's cruel.
In the end it's better (and really, just more chill) to embrace the trouble. At a late moment in the film when this kind of statement could be taken any number of wrong ways, Frances announces, "I like things that look like mistakes." Of course she does. So does the movie, still insisting on holding her gently. So should you.