I recently had the great pleasure of seeing Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Though I don’t to make a habit of making film recommendations in this space, I highly recommend watching if if you get a chance. A.O. Scott has written a nice review that gets at (part of) why I found it very affecting. Earlier today, after watching a conversation between Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, I had a brief conversation with a friend which reminded me of the various ways in which an era of stagnant growth — we are now seven years into what looks to be a lost decade — is infantilizing. Scott’s review observes that “27 is not as old as it used to be, as in decades past “members of the American middle class could be expected to reach that age in possession of a career, a spouse and at least one child.” This reflects changing cultural mores, obviously. Yet it also reflects economic constraints. The rigors of adult life are more easily met when housing is affordable, when labor markets are tight and jobs churn and plenty of people “fail upward,” and when young adults profit from a broader climate of optimism. Under stagnant growth, in contrast, there is a collective tendency to lower our sights, and to put off daunting decisions and commitments. Simpler, cheaper, more accessible pleasures take precedence. I’m reminded of cultural stories chronicling the lives of young Japanese during that country’s lost decade, who purchased expensive consumer goods while living with their parents in cramped quarters. In most of America, economic life is more expansive than all that, even now. But for those who aspire to knowledge-intensive work, and who are burdened by student debt (see Annie Lowrey’s recent article on the subject), the world really does feel cramped. Some manage to lead comfortable lives by relying of strong family networks, and in particular on transfers from parents, an issue that is glancingly explored in Frances Ha. Baby boomers who acquired hard assets before the Great Disinflation of the 1980s are in many cases well-positioned to aid their adult children. Suffice it to say, not every young adult can rely on this kind of parental largesse. And so children of the meritocracy raised to have the same cultural and economic aspirations find themselves divided, with those who grasshoppers for parents on one side of the line and those who had ants for parents on the other, with divorce and other forms of family disruption complicating the picture.
Frances Ha is a smart, well-crafted look at this landscape. My guess is that Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the film and who portrays the protagonist, didn’t really intend to make some kind of larger statement about the cultural consequences of economic stagnation. Rather, they just made a really smart character study that is genuinely au courant. I still can’t help but connect it to these larger themes. And before you assume the film is crazily dour, it’s actually crazily uplifting once you make it to the end.