‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Frances Ha’: Youth as a process

Monday, January 27, 2020 - 1:38pm

NOSELL

A24

So, I have this theory. Protagonists Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson of the 2017 film, “Lady Bird” and Frances Halladay of the 2012 film “Frances Ha” are the same character. If you’ve seen both of their eponymous movies, maybe you’ve instinctively understood their superficial connections to one another; Both are from Sacramento, attend school in New York and explore the concept of youth with unmistakably bright verve.

Yet, to pretend that their connective tissue is coincidence would be silly. They are both pieces of Greta Gerwig’s own experiences (she wrote and directed “Lady Bird” on top of penning “Frances Ha”). For me, it’s impossible to totally separate the characters, because, despite their myriad differences, they speak together in a pricklingly honest way about what it means to become an adult amid the brilliance, failures and compromises of one’s own dreams.

“Sophie and I are the same person with different hair.”

Let’s be clear about something. Where Frances and Lady Bird are similar — in their confident insistence on their own goals, the economic constraints on their passions and a clarity in communication that leaps out of them even when they aren’t speaking — they are vastly different too. Lady Bird is frequently stoic, incessant and self-certain about her desires, while Frances often holds back with immeasurable wisdom. 

But these divergent character inflections are what make their connection so fascinating. If “Lady Bird” explores the idealism and the beckoning promise of growing up, then “Frances Ha” admits the necessary, all-consuming strife that comes with that pursuit. Lady Bird’s dreams are soaring, luminous promises more than they are tangible things. She wants to move out of what she dubs “the Midwest of California” and expand her cultural horizons. She wants the world to know who she is. 

Frances, while never explicitly shying away from any of these hopes, finds herself constrained by her (literally) gray surroundings. For her, the steps in achieving what she wants are often sacrifices. Staying on a lease with her roommate means damaging her relationship with her boyfriend. Flying to France for two days to see a colleague is an utter and lonely waste. 

Moreover, while Lady Bird’s friends possess a similarly unbridled optimism towards their dreams, Frances’s become stilted and hideously practical with adulthood. Nearly every word out of Lady Bird’s mouth is a declaration, a fact or an idea she means to make fact, whether it be her own stern insistence of her nickname or a heated blow towards her mother: “You give me a number for how much it cost to raise me, and I’m going to get older and make a lot of money and write you a check for what I owe you so that I NEVER HAVE TO SPEAK TO YOU AGAIN.” 

Perhaps Frances’s only comparably open moment is her monologue about love: “sort of like how they say other dimensions exist all around us but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s ... that’s what I want out of a relationship.” Yet, upon this profound offering, her adult friends (mostly couples) merely nod and stare in silence. For them, the reality of love is likely a shade of Frances’ moving characterization. And regardless of whether her words are a futile wish or a demonstration of her mystical patience, it doesn’t matter. Lady Bird’s proud and electrifying defiance strikes eager, convivial peers. Frances’s words bounce off of deaf ears.

“I just got a tax rebate. You wanna go to dinner?”

Gerwig has demonstrated an uncanny ability to weave in threads of economic anxiety into her characters in a way that feels simultaneously real, essential and somehow optimistic. This is integral to both films; despite the differences in how Lady Bird and Frances articulate their wishes, they both encounter formidable financial obstacles in realizing them.

For Lady Bird, this economic anxiety manifests in the struggle of paying student loans. For her, the higher cost of attending school in New York is about so much more than the monetary value; she sees the city as a vibrant expression of the eccentric, marrow-deep creativity she has harbored inside of her for her whole life. For Frances, New York holds all of the same promise — it’s a stage where Frances can pursue her dreams of dancing. At the same time, the everyday economic struggles she faces come at direct cost to her — both socially and professionally. Moving in with her new friends means risking their frustration when she’s fired from a Christmas show at her dance company. In the midst of achieving her true aspirations, the limits of paying her bills have bitingly real consequences. On the other hand, Lady Bird’s ignorance about her own family’s financial burdens lasts until those burdens implicate her directly — refinancing a mortgage to pay student loans, shame at the comparative appeal of her house compared to her classmates.

The sacrifices Frances and Lady Bird must make due to their socioeconomic statuses may differ, and so do their ultimate outcomes. For Frances, adulthood salvation comes in the form of compromise, keeping an artistically meaningless office job at her old job in order to also hone her choreography skills. Lady Bird’s reckoning in the last few moments we see her — or perhaps, Christine’s, since here she reverts to her given name — are less overtly economic, but imply a transaction too. At a greater cost to her own family, she has moved far away from Sacramento. That distance should be freeing, but Christine’s ambiguous, unsure expression suggests otherwise. 

Gerwig, Master of the Self-Portrait

One pleasant surprise from the ending of Gerwig’s “Little Women” was the juxtaposition of the character Jo March onto the life of source text author Louisa May Alcott. The writer-director turns Jo into the narrator of the story we’re watching, which demonstrates Gerwig’s understanding of the relationship between art and the artist. 

For Gerwig and those that love her work, that journey is surely worth the price. Beginning as a New York actress, in circumstances not dissimilar to Halladay’s, she has become without a doubt one of the most exciting directors today. 

To create films centered around their author is a bold and impressive feat if executed with the indelible care that Gerwig has. And between Lady Bird, Frances Halladay and Jo March, Gerwig shows genuinely impressive vulnerability in articulating the kinds of obstacles that the creators of art face. But in the search for an optimistic ending, perhaps one has to look no further than Gerwig herself, who has championed her own experiences in service of a parable that her whole career has been building to: the harrowing, surging, all-consuming process of making art can be artful in itself.