Early in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, protagonist Frances is cozied in bed beside her best friend and roommate Sophie. The light is dim; shadows brush across their faces. At the moment when Frances says, “Tell me the story of us,” my stomach lurched in recognition.
Narrative can be oppressive. We fall straight from the womb onto a plotline: the world ushers us to see ourselves as protagonists and map out a lifelong plan. In preschool, our unformed selves wriggle in Crayola colored chairs, responding to baffling questions with sketches of veterinarians and mermaids. We know we’re going to grow up to be something.
Those questions on the one hand encourage endless dreaming, on the other task us with a burden. I had barely learned to move a crayon across construction paper before I was contemplating the story that would guide me through adulthood. (My first plan was a dud, by the way: due to unforeseen limitations in biogenetics, I never did become a mermaid.) I’ve always treated the imperative of a trajectory with anxious reverence; this is how an identity is made. But I feared the ambiguity of the process, the impossibility of knowing what narrative would be “correct.”
And so, as an adolescent, I looked for a co-author. My best friends and I spun stories that took all number of twists and turns, but always traced one life lived by two. Mapping out my life alongside a best friend relieved me of half the burden of becoming someone; I was only responsible for writing half of the story. This was deeply appealing to me, as someone who was chronically unsure of my own potential but never unsure of my friends.
In Frances Ha, the title character delights in Sophie’s “story of us,” a grand narrative that sits in contrast to the protracted stasis otherwise defining Frances’s professional life. As a 27-year-old apprentice at a New York modern dance company, she’s not yet a Professional Dancer; she is only “someone who dances.” While Sophie has already begun to carve out a niche in publishing, Frances scrapes together peewee ballet teaching gigs to make rent.
Best friends also provide a great distraction, and Sophie often allows Frances to forget the need to narrativize at all. With Sophie, Frances gets to dwell in transient moments of shared intimacy: roughhousing in the park, drunkenly popping a squat in the subway. Sophie demands that Frances sleep in her bed (no socks allowed) and Frances happily obliges. Each woman has lovers, but committing to anyone but Sophie registers as far-fetched to Frances. And, for the time being, Sophie refers to her own boyfriend, well-moneyed dudebro Patch, with diffidence.
The Story of Us, the story of Frances and Sophie, is a fantasy in which the two are wildly successful, regularly vacation in Paris, and choose lovers over husbands. It gives Frances the image of a life that is fulfilling, but more importantly, marked by lasting togetherness—less with a man than with her best friend. It’s a pact, subsuming and tying ambition, sex and love to the image of two women descending upon the world, arm in arm.
But the Story of Us is not, we quickly learn, the story that Sophie actually envisions for herself. After Frances surprises Sophie with a romantic post-work picnic early in the film, the two get on the subway, and Sophie’s attention swivels to her iPhone. Her standoffish behavior prompts a chagrined Frances to ask and then insist that she be privy to what’s going on. And then we learn that Sophie, rather than renew her lease with Frances, wants to move to a swanky Tribeca neighborhood ludicrously out of her best friend’s price range—and she has waited until the day before confirming to tell Frances of her plans.
The story, suddenly, is broken; the plot points, once fixed, are now scattered. Who will Frances be if not foremost Sophie’s friend? Sophie does move to Tribeca, and becomes syrupily monogamous with Patch, and Frances has to come to terms not only with her friend’s absence but also with the fictions that propelled her faith in their shared future.
“We’re the same person,” Frances says of Sophie to her new roommates, Lev and Benji. Later, her voice laced with thinly-veiled anxiety, she tells Sophie, “You and I are both undateable. We’re gonna end up spinsters.” Sophie, who has since cultivated an air more sophisticated and bored, merely replies, “You better break that to Patch.”
There’s a certain pleasure in determining that we are “the same person” as our best friend, in finding matching, unevenly shaped pieces of ourselves in another person. Frances Ha also explores something deeper, a defiant pursuit of women’s intimacy, an assertion that platonic romance is vast and boundless as anything sexual.
But identification entirely entwined with another person is just as dangerous whether or not sex is in play. All of the questions that make us squirm in the twilight of our twenties—Am I pursuing the right career? Should I commit to this person? What, precisely, do I want?—can lose their charge in an instant once other people hold enough of their weight. It becomes clearer as the movie goes on that Frances is attracted as much to Sophie’s stability as anything. When her professional misfires are not tertiary plot elements but the plot itself, the whole story starts to unravel; the fiction of Frances is unveiled as just that.
And, all this time, Frances hasn’t successfully negotiated the divide between a shared narrative and one in which she’s primary. Frances, ultimately, doesn’t understand Sophie the way she purports to, and the viewer doesn’t either. We can tell that she’s at times passive-aggressive; from her last-minute moving announcement, that probably fears confrontation. Later in the film, Sophie professes in a drunken ramble to have “always felt… competitive” with Frances. That’s almost all we know. More important is the fact that Frances has been unwilling or unable to interpret her friend on her friend’s terms.
We see the expanse of this gap during what amounts to the film’s climax. After a fight with Patch, a liquored-up Sophie crawls into Frances’s bed and whispers boozy promises of reunion and a resurrected narrative: Sophie’s going to leave Japan, where she now lives with Patch, and, more crucially, she’s going to leave Patch himself. She will return to New York City with Frances, who is presently working a summer gig as an RA at their alma mater, Vassar. The two fall asleep as Sophie intones, “I love you, Frances.”
Sophie does love Frances; there’s no doubting this. But when Frances awakes the next morning, it is not beside Sophie, but rather to the sound of Patch’s car pulling away, her best friend in tow. Sophie leaves Frances with the briefest note: an apology for puking in her trash can, and a claim of ignorance as to everything she said and did the night before. Cinematically, Frances chases the car while calling Sophie’s name, but to no avail.
This night teaches Frances a harsh but vital truth: any “story of us” with two authors also has two interpretations.
Still, as anyone with a best friend or partner knows, disparate interpretations don’t render mutual understanding impossible. One night, in the midst of her estrangement from Sophie, Frances dreamily describes to fellow dinner party guests her conception of purest romance: a shared look across a crowded room that communicates one essential fact: we are each other’s person. “That’s what I want out of a relationship,” she concludes. And we understand two things: this is what she wants from her friendship with Sophie. And she wants it precisely because they have never experienced it. In spite of affection, attachment, and intimacy, they have not quite grasped how to see each other.
But they learn. At the end of the film, Frances and Sophie beam at each other across the expanse of a reception. Frances has just showcased her first work as a choreographer. Sophie has married Patch. And as Frances basks in the pulse of that glow, her emotions indiscernible to the rest of the crowd, she finally understands whom it is she sees. It is not another manifestation of herself or an embodiment of some predetermined life. It is Sophie, her best friend.
Rachel Vorona Cote is the creator of the Fake Friends series. She has also written essays for The Rumpus, The Hairpin, and The Billfold. Come hang out with her on Twitter here.
Images via IFC