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In Defense of "Frances Ha": Why Middle-Class White Angst Is Angst, Too

by Anthony Kaufman
May 17, 2013 6:51 PM
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In some corners, Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha" is getting lumped in with a certain cycle of mumblecore movies that focused on young white people with nothing to do with their lives except whining and having sex with each other. This is an oversimplification, of course. But because "Frances" stars that great mumblecore original ingenue, the ever-so-talented and wonderfully awkward Greta Gerwig, it's getting saddled with the same criticisms, too: It's just another movie about privileged white wanderers directed by another privileged white wanderer. But contrary to my usual stance, I'm here to say that "Frances Ha" has more to say about class politics in the world of New York City 20-somethings than most films targeted at that demographic.

When I reviewed the film for Screen Daily out of Toronto, I admittedly was taken by this affectionate portrait of Greta's Frances, an aspiring modern dancer as she deals with a difficult break-up. But unlike many artist-types in New York, like some of the young boys Frances lives with at one point, she doesn't come from privilege. And even if she's middle-class, she's been knocked down to the lower rungs of society by these brutal economic times. Her friend may be an ambitious editor at a publishing house. but Frances is lost like so many other lost kids of her generation.

She might have a leg up in trying to survive the new economic realities because she's white and attractive, but she's not movie star beautiful, and she's not some manic-pixie rich girl. All this is to say, I guess, that white people can have problems, too. And particularly in this dire economy, unemployment doesn't discriminate. (Well, technically it does, but it still sucks for everyone.)

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  • Ross | January 28, 2014 11:44 PMReply

    As Im reading these comments, it is so extremely weird how everyone is saying how empty and boring and unrelatable this movie is. I loved this movie and as I watched it I found myself relating to Frances a lot, and guess what?! Im a 22 year old girl from Dominican Republic, an under-developed country in the middle of the Caribbean.
    Im a latina and Im middle class in my country which doesn't even translate to middle class of US, the electricity goes off daily (completely normal, we have to use power inverters), running water is a problem, transportation is a problem, everything is so expensive compared to the US we sometimes wished we lived there like poor people live.

    The point is, that despite all these, I loved the movie and found myself sympathizing with Frances and her situations, and she actually comforted me, because just now im finishing college and Im an aspiring filmmaker and Ive been struggling so hard to get a job specially in my area, and my country is so behind in filmmaking that pursuing my dreams is extra hard, so like her I feel lost, and discouraged and small, just now im beginning to feel the weight of being and adult and i feel like i should have things figured out because everyone around me already have their shit together and they're my age and i feel like crap. Also found myself relating to her in even small things, like the not having a credit card thing so youre not a person yet, and the being a rambling mess when talking to people and lots of other stuff, so yeah its not like everyone HAS to like the movie, of course not, but I don't understand why is being bashed like this. Im far from being a "privileged white american" and this movie did a lot for me.

  • Kris Kemp | November 14, 2013 8:21 AMReply

    I do not understand how this movie got so many positive reviews. It's boring and the main character doesn't have enough charming qualities to get me to care or sympathize with her. I found the characters self-indulgent and uncreative.

    I live in Bushwick (Brooklyn, NY) and work as an actor. Most of my friends are actors, artists, writers, musicians and they are some of the nicest, most interesting people you will meet. It's rare that I meet people as self-indulgent as the characters in "Frances Ha" and when I do, I usually ignore them, because they tend to be like black holes, that absorb everything in their path but give little in return.

    If people watch "Frances Ha" or the HBO show "Girls", they might conclude that NYC residents are that self-absorbed navel-gazers. Some are, but most are hard-working, creative, and friendly. At least the ones that I meet.

  • Al Syzmanski | June 28, 2013 8:15 PMReply

    I'd much rather see a movie about a middle-aged Polish butcher forced out of the Brooklyn shop his family has run for four generations because of angsty upper-middle-class white people moving into the neighborhood and driving up the rents.

  • Noah Borebach | May 31, 2013 1:36 PMReply

    This isn't middle class white angst. This is top 10% upper middle class white angst. Rich people are under some delusion they're middle class, too, which just ain't true. This movie is unrelatable unless you come from a privileged background, but it's a Baumbach movie, so what do you expect. This ain't white people problems - this is rich people problems. Who gives a crap.

  • Kris Kemp | November 14, 2013 8:16 AM

    Your comment is so spot-on. I'm watching this movie right now and it's annoying and boring.

  • Micheaux's Ghost | May 21, 2013 10:45 AMReply

    It all boils down to the fact that there's not a real market for "middle class angst" films based around black characters. Or at least real enough for Hollywood to pay attention.

    White audiences are not going to pay to see these types of films and sadly black audiences aren't either. For all the hooting and hollering about wanting different representations on screen, black films that aren't over the top dramas, filled with violence, or raunchy comedies usually fail to make serious money or gain a significant audience.

    Every few years the Sundance set comes along to prop up an "alternative" black film like, "Pariah" or "Medicine for Melancholy" that get showered with awards and accolades, but never reaches a sizeable audience or springboards the filmmaker's career to the next level.
    Their movies don't have enough financial potential for Hollywood to be interested in.

    Whereas a film like "Squid and The Whale" or "Frances Ha" will do reasonable enough on theatrical and DVD for Baumbach to keep get financing for his films. Because there is actually a decent size audience of white people who will pay to see "middle class angst" films with white characters. Way more than black and whites combined for the same type of film with black characters.

    I'm not saying black films like this shouldn't exist, but people have to be realistic. Film financing is not a charity. There is a small audience for these type of films(black or white) and there is a possibility to turn a profit, but it has to be done in a smart way.

    "alternative" black filmmakers should:
    1) find financing outside hollywood from investors
    2) make "middle class angst" film with black characters for under $500,000
    3) tour that film with weekend screenings at venues in major cites across the country
    4) connect with fans through social media
    5) control all online distribution of the film
    6) forget about being a part of Hollywood (theatrical release, Oscars, DGA)

  • slice | August 9, 2013 12:24 AM

    @Michaux's Ghost

    It's not that black indie films don't have any financial potential---it's that distributors don't push these films because of their racist belief that nobody wants to watch black films other than black people---look at what happened when George Lucas tried to get RED TAILS distributed--,which was some really ignorant,outdated racist BS---and that's the REAL reason they don't get pushed or promoted. A couple of years ago when an indie film called NIGHT CATCHES US came out, I couldn't wait to see it, but when I checked its itinerary it wasn't scheduled to play in Detroit, and it never showed up there. Plus it was barely promoted offline, and I'm thinking, "How the hell does a film made/written by a black director NOT get a playdate/get shown in a mostly black city? WTF!?" And,BTW, black indie filmmakers have already been doing all that for years---you'd know that if you go on the site Shadow and Act on a daily basis--so you're not telling them anything they haven't already done or know.

    And what's this comment about "film financing is not a charity"? Excuse me, but nobody ever said it was to begin with,but funny how white indie filmmakers always seem to get their work pushed/promoted/distributed whether it actually makes any money or not. And I rarely hear stupid comments like that about white indie filmmakers getting financing. The other real reason black indie films don't get pushed is because white folks dominate the indie film business just like they do Hollywood, and they aren't the least bit interested in pushing the work of black indie filmmakers because if it's not about white people, it dosen't interest them, and they don't want the competition. So don't give me that BS about black films not being good enough to make it. Especially since I saw Pariah and Medicine For Melancholy and they are BOTH pretty good films--especially the former. All you're basically saying is that black films aren't worth a damn to you simply BECAUSE they're black films. As if all films about white people are so much better, which I know from a lifetime of film-watching, is a bunch of stupid racist BS. And if black films don't have any commercial potential, how come the new indie drama Fruitvale Station is getting a lot of hype and actual promotion on TV? It actually helped that Octavia Spencer (of THE HELP fame) produced it, which gave it a big push---plus it's also written/directed by a young up-and-coming black director. Bottom line, if black indie filmmakers who have made good work get it pushed/promoted (or promote the hell out of their work on their own) like anybody else, the quality of the work will speak for itself, just like the average good indie film does.

  • NAW | May 20, 2013 3:08 AMReply

    This is such an embarrassing article. "All this is to say, I guess, that white people can have problems, too." yeah we noticed by the past 100 years of american cinema being particularly focused on them. what compels someone to defend something that the majority people aren't against and in fact are weirdly complacent about (white majority films and protagonists 98% of the time unless the characters are 'struggling' poc w/ white saviors so white viewers can feel bad for and pity them and feel better about themselves for doing so without actually changing anything).

  • jingmei | May 18, 2013 3:09 AMReply

    Hadn't thought about this film from such aspects.

  • THOR | May 17, 2013 10:14 PMReply

    By the way, why is everyone so racist here? White people this, white people that?

    Anyway, just so you know there are mumblecore movies about non-white people (Medicine for Melancholy, In Between Days).

    It just feels wrong and absurd to endlessly bring up race here.

  • KaffeeKlatsch | May 18, 2013 11:59 AM

    wow, Thor. I think you are the one that is bitter. I'm so not obsessed by race---it seems like you are much more than I am. I was just addressing the article--which talks about white angst. I assume when he writes white angst, he means white people angst, no. You need to chill.

  • THOR | May 18, 2013 9:10 AM

    "How many years ago did those movies get made?"
    5 and 7, but what is your point?

    "How more can you name?"
    Here are a couple more: MDMA (2011) and Supporting Characters (2012).

    Barry Jenkins has directed a number of shorts since 2008, and So Yong Kim has directed another two feature films.

    "but it is harder for them to get them made"

    [citation needed]

    The majority of mumblecore movies are pretty much self-funded, so what do you mean exactly?

    White people are the majority in the US, that's just statistics. Why are you so bitter and cynical about the fact that most movies are made by white people?

    Why not just watch movies about people, and not be obsessed about race all the time?

  • kaffeeklatsch | May 18, 2013 7:33 AM

    Discussing issues of race, especially when the article in question is the one that brings up the issue "...middle class white angst is angst too" does not make one racist. And you named two movies of middle class angst in which the main characters are not white. How many years ago did those movies get made? How more can you name? How many more feature films have the directors of those two been able to make? There are so many more films and tv shows which are about middle class white angst than about the middle class angst of other groups. That is why this articles has issues for me. Middle class white angst is almost the only kind of middle class angst that we do see. We get movies in greater numbers about the angst of other ethnic groups primarily when that angst is about getting out of poverty, "fighting the system" etc. I do believe there are filmmakers of other ethnic groups who are trying to make movies about "middle class angst" but it is harder for them to get them made. There is nothing racist about stating that.

  • THOR | May 17, 2013 10:08 PMReply

    A lot of people don't seem to get Baumbach at all.

    He isn't here to make some "pleasant" or "quirky" movies to feel good about. He is here to make the most toxic, dirty, neurotic movies about middle class. Why do you feel the need to rationalize it?

    He's making movies about his own milieu, what's wrong with that?

  • slice | May 20, 2013 7:39 AM

    C'mon---with all the critical hype that MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY got, Barry Jenkins should have had scripts tossed at him left and right (plus the film was actually good,too.) Yet he's still hasn't done another film to this day, besides the couple of shorts he's done. I say that because it seems that even white indie filmmakers get some hype for their first film, they get to crank one film after another, while black indie filmmakers, it seems, always have to wait forever to get their next film out. Look at Theodore Witcher, the writer/director of the 1997 romance drama LOVE JONES, who,sadly hasn't been able to get a film made since. Or Tanya Hamilton, writer/director of the 2010 indie drama NIGHT CATCHES US---where's her sophomore film? Also the Jenkins film isn't a so-called mumblecore flick (I know what they are, but I've never seen one) it's a good drama about a man and a woman getting to know one another after a one-night stand, and being black in San Francisco.

    Also get this straight---it's not racist to bring up the subject of race itself, but when the majority of films about middle-class angst are almost always without exception about WHITE people, that's pretty damn hard to overlook, especially in this multiracial 21st century. Of course, since you're white it's not an issue for you. The point is that I'm sick and tired of ONLY white people being focused on in films, as if only their lives matter more than everybody else simply because they are white---that's why I can't stand junk like Downton Abbey, which,once again, is yet another damn show about white upper-middle class people of the early 20th century---I'm glad it's off, because I got sick and damn tired of hearing about it (and peeking at it sometimes) I mean, why the hell can't there be a show about black British or East Indian people from that same time period. The world dosen't revolve around white people any more, and Hollywood films need to reflect that (they do, but indie films made by people of color do a far better job or that.)

  • cinesis | May 17, 2013 10:06 PMReply

    No one is preventing white people from telling their stories, they are everywhere if you've noticed. I mean can you list any tv show or movies that deals with quirky angsty middle class POC characters? Why is the white middle class angst, the only angst people have to empathize with? Everyone is sad indeed.

  • aliaj | May 17, 2013 7:41 PMReply

    New York = Money. Money is the reason these stories are bland and inherently annoying because people with money tend to be boring unless they're represented from a more discerning and dissecting perspective. I still wanna see this movie, though. It looks good.

  • Kaffeeklatsch | May 17, 2013 7:19 PMReply

    The problem is not that white middle class angst isn't angst, it is that it seems like white middle class angst is the only middle class angst that is allowed on film (and tv). Other ethnic groups are not allowed to have "middle class" angst in the same way. Their angst is always about struggling out of crazy poverty or fighting some kind of social/political injustice. There are "middle-upper class" people of color who have pretty similar kinds of angst as in Frances Ha or numerous other movies and tv shows. It is just that they aren't being made---or when they are, or someone is attempting to make them, they can't get seen or financed.....

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