The coming-of-age genre has always felt to me like it’s deliberately tearing itself apart towards two extremes. At its core, it breaks down childlike wonderment, presenting a cynical view of reality with a very firm “This is the way the world is” message. But it also -- more often than not, it seems -- comes with a happy ending attached. The “comer-of-age” grows up and adapts to the world, finding things to replace the ideals they left behind.
By those metrics, Frances Ha would be a relatively standard coming-of-age film. But there is a key difference here. The protagonist of these sorts of stories is normally a teenager, matching their mental turn towards adulthood with their physical one. The titular Frances is twenty-seven. This may not seem like much, but it means Frances has wildly different issues she has to overcome. Compare this film, for example, to writer and star Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film, Lady Bird. While Saoirse Ronan’s character is dealing with the trials and tribulations of her final year of high school, from friendship drama to relationships to her equally strong-willed mother, Frances finds that all of her friends are moving away while she’s trapped in a career she no longer finds satisfying.
One might note, though, that the basic structure remains the same. Despite her age, Frances Halladay still has a lot of ideals that just don’t work in a cynical world. Some might read that as a failure on the part of the writing, creating a woman-child who might as well be just out of college if she’s going to act like she does. But that’s part of the point, I feel. One of the major lessons that Frances needs to learn is that life is perfectly fine moving on without her.
There’s also a charm that goes into the various episodes of Frances’ life, another thing that extends to many coming-of-age stories. There isn’t really an antagonist. There are low points, yes, and characters fight, but everything is mended by the end with that same resolution I mentioned at the beginning: Frances grows up. And yes, there’s some melancholy attached to that. But there’s a hopefulness to it as well. She’ll figure it out.