It seems hard to believe now but there was a time when directors would as a matter of course put out at least one movie a year and often more than one and still keep a mostly consistent pace while doing so. Take John Ford for example; in 1939 he managed to make Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk all in one year, then followed it up with a year when he managed to make both The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home, and this pace did not slow down in the ensuing years either. Granted this was all in the factory-like studio system where he didn’t have to spearhead production himself and where he didn’t have to oversee major aspects of pre and post production, but still, you wonder when the guy found time to sleep. Today a director who isn’t Woody Allen or maybe a Mumblecore person is unlikely to make more than one movie in any given three year period, but every once in a while it does happen. Case in point, the indie auteur Noah Baumbach unexpectedly put out two films this year, each one set in the hip contemporary New York setting that he’s come to specialize in but dealing with very different kinds of friendships and its very hard to view either of them without considering the other and also how they fit in the shadow of Baumbach’s last film: Frances Ha.
I suppose before I can get into the two new films I should go back to Frances Ha because my opinion on that film has, shall we say, evolved over time. When I saw the film in 2013 I liked the movie and gave it a positive three star review and if asked I’d say I probably stand by that opinion and that review… but that’s something I have to keep reminding myself because the more and more that movie was over-rated by people after its release the more negative my feelings about it became. This is a movie that showed up in multiple to ten lists, was recently voted the ninth best movies of the decade so far by The Dissolve, the fourth best movie of the decade so far by AVClub, and has been given a place in the Criterion collection, all of which baffles me because to me it’s an incredibly minor achievement. It doesn’t tell a particularly interesting story, it goes nowhere, it isn’t thematically rich, and aside from the fact that it was in black and white it wasn’t very stylish. There are already too many movies that greatly overestimate how interesting the lives of middle class twenty-somethings in New York are but the character in that movie was even less remarkable than usual. There was no relationship arc to the movie, very little comedic appeal, barely a plot at all. Pretty much the only thing that the film has going for it is that its protagonist is fairly well drawn and it’s somewhat relatable, but what is relatability really worth? As a middle-class twenty-something myself I did find some things in the character to relate to but the less like Frances someone is the more worthless that movie is going to be to them. This is why relatability generally works better when it’s merely an accent to an otherwise interesting story rather than the one element you put all your chips onto.
Baumbach’s latest films certainly seem to be operating in the same milieu as Frances Ha in that both films are set in wealthy-ish areas of New York and involve young people and one of them was also co-written by and stars Greta Gerwig. Of the two, While We’re Young is the one which is most directly in dialog with the “H-Word” (Hipster). That movie concerns a stable married couple in their 30s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who find they’ve befriended a married couple in their 20s (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) almost as a sort of 1/3-life crisis. Stiller’s character is a moderately successful documentarian and Driver’s character is also trying to break into the world of documentary filmmaking and it quickly becomes apparent that these two men have very different ideas about how documentaries should be made. At its heart While We’re Young is about the differences between Generation X and the Millenials and it’s probably not a coincidence that it brings together the director of Reality Bites with a member of the cast of Girls. Mistress America is also about interaction between generations, but it skews even younger and focuses in on a friendship between an older millennial in her late 20s named Brooke (Greta Gerwig) and a younger millennial who’s just started college named Tracy (Lola Kirke). These two women are brought together because Tracy’s mother is engaged to Brooke’s father and with Tracy now living in New York for college they decided to contact one another, leading to a strange and in some ways tumultuous friendship.
While We’re Young is the lesser of the two films but it’s certainly not without its own indie charm. Given his recent affinity for “the kids” it’s easy to forget that Noah Baumbach is a 46 year old man who probably has more in common with the Ben Stiller character in the film and this movie seems to be a reaction to how he feels when he’s hanging around with the Greta Gerwigs of the world. His observations about hipsterdom are clever and perhaps different than you might expect. For instance, the film actually shows the older characters being a lot more excited about 21st century technologies than the younger and more bohemian characters are actually infatuated with older technologies like VHS tapes and typewriters. The film is not all cute generational observations though as it is a pretty decent character study about two people trying to cope with the fact that they’re getting older and that their marriage is starting to grow a little stale and that they need some direction in life.
That movie is a bit more comedic and Woody Allen-esque than some of Baumbach’s other recent work and is a bit more in keeping with what I would have expected out of the director post-The Squid and the Whale. Mistress America, by contrast, feel a lot more like a direct follow-up to Frances Ha. Obviously the fact that Greta Gerwig is back both as an actress and as a co-writer is a big part of that, but the movie shouldn’t be viewed as some kind of spiritual sequel to that earlier film either. Gerwig isn’t the main character here, or at least the film isn’t told from her perspective. Instead the film focuses on the younger character played by Lola Kirke who is having a difficult transition into college. Kirke is really charming here and I personally found the character’s difficulty getting into the groove of college life a lot more relatable than any of Frances Halladay’s Brooklyn escapades. Gerwig’s character is almost more important though because much of the movie is about how Kirke’s character views Brooke over the course of the movie. At first Brooke seems like the platonic ideal of a hip New Yorker what with her network of friends, ability to get into trendy spots, and plans to open a restaurant. Over the course of the film though she starts to see the cracks in the seams of Brook’s life and starts to forge her own identity distinct from the template her soon to be sister in law has set.
Overall, I found both of these characters more interesting than Frances Halladay and another place where I think this has a clear edge over Frances Ha is in the side characters. At its heart, Frances Ha was really a one-woman show. Other people like Frances’ friend/former roommate or the Adam Driver character or uh… the various other people I don’t remember much about, but none of them are really explored and they also weren’t really meant to have notable personalities either. Here on the other hand we also have a number of other memorable characters like Tracy’s college friends played by Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas-Jones as well as a pair of yuppies that Brook tries to get money out of played by Heather Lind and Michael Chernus. All of these characters, and a few others, all collide in a climactic sequence late in the film which almost takes on the energy and witty writing of a screwball comedy. That’s another thing about this movie I enjoyed a lot more than Frances Ha it’s actually kind of funny at times. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend anyone go to the movie expecting to laugh uproariously but it definitely has a level or wit that that earlier movie didn’t and the same probably goes for While We’re Young.
I guess the main thing that makes both of these movies work better for me than Frances Ha is just that they feel more… eventful. That isn’t too hard given that Frances Ha is basically just “a couple of days in the life of a supposedly relatable hipster chick,” and I suppose one could aruge that I’m simply favoring these two films for following slightly more conventional screenplay beats, which might be a little short-sighted. There might be a little truth in that, but at the end of the day the fact is that these movies still just did more for me, or at least Mistress America definitely did. While We’re Young is certainly a cute movie that I enjoyed watching but which probably isn’t going to be remembered for too long. I don’t necessarily think Mistress America is some kind of classic either, but it did impress me more than an indie (and that’s “indie” in the very specific and Noah Baumbachy sense of the word) film has in a while.
While We’re Young: *** out of Four
Mistress America: ***1/2 out of Four