Frances, Greta Gerwig’s ne’er-do-well late twenty-something in the film she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, “Frances Ha,” has trouble leaving places. She’ll assuredly tell you that with a mix of sheepish indignity and coquettish charm. She lags about and takes her time, never quite vacating spaces or frames of mind or maybe even parts of her life others think she should have well departed at her age. Twenty-seven is old though, remarks her roommate Benji at one point.
Frances, too, is having trouble leaving where her friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner) used to be and entering where it is currently, as Sophie’s relationship with her boyfriend grows more serious. A circuitous, but no less inevitable dissolution of Frances and Sophie’s relationship is captured between the thumb and forefinger of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s perceptive screenwriting, from the last good day to a regrettable night drunk on fancy vodka, facing one’s mirror with one’s foot on the ground to stop the room from spinning. Living situations change. Hangouts are shorter. And Frances is forced to transmogrify into a third wheel, during which there is an awkward scrimmage for power.
It’s not that Frances doesn’t have some growing up to do, some responsibilities to confront. But the sharpness to “Frances Ha” is, perhaps, its supposition that Sophie has trouble leaving places too, or, conversely, is too adept at doing so and assumes that such a planned out life framework not only makes sense for everyone but should be wanted by everyone. The boyfriend, the engagement, the move away from the city, the gradual settling down. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there’s also nothing inherently right, or at least better, about it either.
Greta Gerwig is as much a great chronicler of the friend romance as she is of the friend breakup, those tedious events that, in most film and television are depicted as cataclysmic events that result in crosstalk, split-screen, and Andy Cohen playing catty referee. (Okay, maybe I’ve been watching a lot of "Real Housewives.") But in “Frances Ha,” “Mistress America,” and “Lady Bird,” they are, without losing the personal emotional weight, so much more uncomfortably matter of fact.
A particular image in “Frances Ha” functions as a useful template: after Frances finally leaves her dressing room after being told she won’t be employed for the rest of the holiday season, she meets up with Sophie and her boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger). Their planned evening together is reduced to “a quick drink” due to a vacation visit to meet the boyfriend’s parents. As the two gleefully regale their plans, they regress to pet names and baby talk, the most repulsive thing about all relationships. Frances tries to play along. As Patch jokingly strangles Sophie for her packing procrastination, Sophie turns to Frances, a brag, no longer seeking the approval that friends ask of one another in their intimacy. Frances recognizes this as a kind of grotesque performance, her mouth hangs a little open, knowingly, yet there’s a blinkered confusion at the bizarreness of being expected to participate in this little act of coupledom which should have only been meant for Sophie and Patch in the first place. For all of her future work in her self-actualization and whatever perceived unfairness might be tingeing the relationship between her and Sophie at this time, she is at least aware of the staginess and ego of being expected to like, or even want, what Sophie has. At this point, there’s no reason to tell Sophie about how Frances is struggling, lest she be judged. It’s the first bad sign of the night. But Gerwig’s embodiment of a near out-of-body experience of personal cringe is visceral, more so than the actual verbal argument she and Sophie get into at the bar bathroom the three of them end up going to.
What stays with one after Frances and Sophie breakup is not the intensity of the bathroom argument (the roar of “Don’t treat me like a three-hour brunch friend!” is admittedly quite satisfying) but the legibly sallow look on Frances’ face as she stares at herself, spinning through the Rolodex of what went wrong that night, in her friendship, in her life. What she could have said or done or be. A silent spiral and a sinking feeling. Ultimately, anticlimactic. The recognition that you do not have what your friend has and what your friend has is being telegraphed to you as what you should have.
I watched that scene again recently, now less compartmentalized fiction, smarting with a familiarity that uncanny, unintentional reflections have, one’s image on the glass guarding the photograph beneath a frame. My now-former friend recently fired me from being her friend. It was a short conversation, straightforward, absurdly formal. Not particularly dramatic. Our phone conversations had become affected, as I gingerly navigated them to avoid error. Whatever behavior I was accused of earlier, I was previously happy to rectify because I cared about my friend’s feelings. She spoke in her most managerial voice. She thanked me for five years of friendship (it’d actually been seven) the way one thanks an employee for several years of service before asking them to pack their desk and leave by the end of the day. There was no severance package. There was projection, clearly, as the kind of person she expected me to be and the life she expected me to want both for her and for myself. The same telegraphing Frances recognizes Sophie doing with each passing interaction, their expectations for themselves and for one another discordant. I admitted I was tired of walking on eggshells around her and we both seemingly threw in the towel, her beating me to some unspoken social media-unfriending race I didn’t know we were in, feeling penalized for reasons that remain opaque, yet still tethered to the idea I did something wrong and that I alone should have taken all steps to ward off against the wilting dynamic. That I should have wanted more and better, in spite of the fraught implications of wanting, desiring, less for yourself than for others.
Gerwig slips a scalpel beneath the skin of friendships to peel back those dynamics as constantly shifting haves and have nots, and apathy, desire, and ambivalence. In “Mistress America,” it's a budding friendship between a college freshman/aspiring writer Tracy (Lola Kirke) and do-all-and-everything-and-nothing Brooke (Gerwig). As Tracy’s short story uses Brooke and the night they spent together losing themselves in and around the city and drinking in its possibilities, Tracy’s full-throated and messy characterization of the fictional Brooke is predicated both on admiration and judgment. Their closeness blooms, and their mirroring each other, despite their age difference, becomes a way for them to strive to be the idealized versions of themselves and what they want from each other.
Their dynamic, written on the fragile palette of assessment and in the inedible ink of yearning and even envy, contains as much pleasure as it does pain. The film opens with the first lines of Tracy’s writing: “She would say things like, ‘Isn’t every story a story of betrayal?’” The question has the grime of betrayal on it, oily and hard to wash off. So when Tracy and Brooke’s ever precarious relationship hangs off a precipice, Tracy’s short story revealing what she thinks of Brooke after all (fictional though it may be), it’s not only Brooke’s ego that gets splashed with sludge.
Despite the neo-screwball framework of the film, “Mistress America” has wounds all over it. The litigation of Tracy’s story is a set-piece, but the drama is in watching Tracy head home on the Metro-North train from Connecticut to New York, not even bothering to look out the window at the line of wet trees becoming a forest of skyscrapers. She stares at a list of questions about the incriminating short story instead, which look back at her in turn, each number a vein in a fractal of interpersonal cracks. The drama is in the burning resignation of Tracy resting her head in her mother’s lap, admitting she has gone through a breakup. (Frances also uses this phrase.) The drama is also in Tracy heading back to all the places in New York she and Brooke went to, the uncertainty of whether she really wants to find Brooke after all.
In somewhat of an inverse to “Frances Ha,” Brooke is all the chaos that Frances gets judged for, but here it is a trait desirable, yet not wholly removed from skepticism. She doesn’t care that much about having the boyfriend, about the steady job, about the expectation to settle down. She’s got all that excitement that people expect her to grow out of. Tracy loves that about Brooke, but pauses. It’s that pause that taints it; if only Tracy would bust through the door, want what she wants because she wants it.
Nothing about the phone call I had was especially dramatic. Andy Cohen would have left it on the cutting room floor; Baumbach or Gerwig might have kept it as connective tissue for a subsequent scene. Even when smaller events burst beyond their usual means, and regardless of the betrayal I felt at having someone who has predicated their identity on being aligned with social justice work come at me with some loaded condescension, the event itself was not especially remarkable, in spite of the meaningful personal history it was saddled with. (I mean, what is when you’re competing with bean dad and a literal insurrection?) All that, seven years, ended not with a bang, but with a pained—for different reasons? For the same?—“have a good evening.”
The wants are not so much different at the beginning of the 21st century and on the other side of the coast either, with Lady Bird (given name Christine, Saoirse Ronan). Lady Bird has freedom and creative passion with the verve of someone to whom the prospect of being anchored in some predictable way is unseemly. Her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) likes that she wants those things, even if she herself does not necessarily want them.
But as the wanting gets bigger, the priorities shift and the relationship to those implications do too. Lady Bird is slung with the dreams of a class status greater than her own and the congealing of her own ethos, with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and Julie as witnesses. The boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) and the new rich friend (Odeya Rush) become less people than the avatars she wants to impress and to be, at the expense of her relationship with Julie.
Julie doesn’t want the same things, but she does want the best for her friend. After an argument between classes, Gerwig takes a moment to vacillate between perspectives during an anti-abortion assembly. As Lady Bird steps deeper into her provocation, surrounded by her new cool friends, Gerwig focuses on Julie momentarily, looking at Lady Bird from several seats away. Embarrassment for her friend washes over her face briefly, but it transforms into something sadder, a melancholy that she either maybe can’t shut her friend up or bask in the egoistic prodding with Lady Bird. It almost looks like longing.
This scene finds its complement as Lady Bird, on her way to prom with her new hipster boyfriend (Timothée Chalamet) and his coterie, listens to Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me,” which the car decries as lame, but which crashes into her as a memory with Julie. A song that both lovely and cheesy to them, and a moment they now can’t have together. In Gerwig’s conception, and maybe real life’s too, the smaller moments unshared are more painful than the break itself.
In my own friendship breakup—fueled by assumptions that my former friend's want was either what I also wanted, or, worse, should want, and pockmarked with racial, class, and queerphobic undertones—the unusual pace is what shakes me. It twinged the way a finger prick for a blood test does; a spike slipped in, its stakes sanded off into inevitability. The boringness and the fact that the boringness was hurtful and stressful and dripped with hypocrisy. It curdled, without the benefit of levity during a pandemic, space for time or good faith after half a decade to find new footing, or the generosity of commitment to mutual growth. (But at least there was an accusatory 1,200 word text message!)
There are elements of the aforementioned three films that resemble what “happened” (my therapist had to reassure me that I was “not a white woman”), but Gerwig feels the most accurate in this moment not in the broader plot scenarios and specific friendships and their falling out (and eventual resolution), but their less conventionally interesting moments. Friendship breakups reek of an everydayness, so musty and fundamentally undramatic that, regardless of their gradations of political or social implications, they’re barely worth mentioning to anyone who isn’t privy to any of the parties involved.
And after the phone call, I decided to watch some Greta Gerwig movies. I think I realized that, for different reasons and in different spaces, we both, my former friend and I, had trouble leaving places. Who we were once to ourselves and to each other, what our values were, what we wanted for ourselves and for each other; vines once headed up the same fence, now drawn to different light. Or maybe that’s romanticizing it all, a cozy illusion to explain away inexorable change that is paradoxically blistering and insipid.
But maybe that is exactly why, sans reality TV aesthetic, Gerwig is so good at examining them, dramatizing events that are not so dramatic but whose effects inconsistently weigh like one. Everyone loses in a friendship breakup, less an upended game board than the incremental loss of interest in and forfeiture of the game. The contradictions that once allowed friendships to thrive can evolve into something else. Even in her most articulate or droll executions, they rest uneasily at the intersection of mundane and catastrophic, quotidian and infuriating, dull and numb and stinging of shrapnel. Before they reconcile, Gerwig’s friendships don’t break, they rot. But sometimes you have to be your own match to your own bonfire, your own beacon of hope; even though, as Tracy may attest, it may be a lonely business. But not for long.