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John DoughertyAugust 18, 2023
Greta Gerwig stars in a scene from the movie "Frances Ha." (CNS photo/IFC Films)Greta Gerwig stars in a scene from the movie "Frances Ha." (CNS photo/IFC Films)

The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.

Sometimes, I like to think of movies as playing out from a God’s-eye view. That’s not to say that the audience is omniscient or can influence the story (see: every horror movie viewer who’s ever screamed “He’s right behind you!” fruitlessly at the screen). But movies offer us a privileged vantage point into another person’s heart that we don’t often get in real life. They can be a chance to see even the most difficult, flawed people with grace, to grow in understanding, maybe even to recognize ourselves in them—to see another, in a sense, the way that God might see them.

“Frances Ha” allows us to see Frances the way God might see her. We see her flaws, but we also see how hard she’s trying.

For me, this is what “Frances Ha” (2013) is all about. Directed by Noah Baumbach and written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig (who also stars), the film follows Frances Halladay, a 27-year-old aspiring dancer living in Brooklyn. Her best friend and roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), has just moved out, and Frances has to figure out what to do next. Within that bare bones plot, we find humor, heartbreak and deep yearning: for creative fulfillment, for community, for love.

Frances is kind of a mess. She’s still trying to figure out how to grow up, after being a legal adult for almost a decade. Her dreams are crashing up against the limits of her talent and the cold reality of financial necessity. She also seems immune to making the right decision, and we watch her self-sabotage repeatedly: going on a vacation she can’t afford, turning down a stable (but mundane) job offer. She’s awkward, drinks too much, reacts without thinking. She seems like the sort of friend who’s a lot of fun at a party, and really difficult in any other context.

We all know a Frances. Maybe she’s the college friend you “outgrew,” or the sibling who can never seem to get it together. (If we’re honest enough, maybe we can admit that we’ve all been someone else’s Frances, at one time or another.) We care about the Frances figures in our lives, but eventually get tired of being dragged into the vortex of chaos that surrounds them. It’s tempting to view them only with frustration, to write them off, cut them out.

But “Frances Ha” allows us to see Frances the way God might see her. We see her flaws, but we also see how hard she’s trying, her moments of brilliance and kindness, her loneliness and desire. We keep rooting for her, even when she screws up. I believe God looks at us the same way. Who knows us—our flaws, our frustratingly repetitive cycles of sin—better than God? “LORD, you have probed me, you know me. You know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.” (Ps 139:1-2) God knows every gritty, imperfect detail of our lives… and loves us anyway. God never gives up on us, even when everyone else may have shrugged us off as a lost cause.

We’re called to do the same. “Frances Ha” lets us get to know Frances, so that we come to view her with affection and hope, not condemnation. We don’t always get the chance to do that with the real, messy, flawed people in our lives. But everyone, even the most difficult people we know, could benefit from a God’s-eye view. That’s the invitation (and challenge) of this film: to see others with grace and mercy, just as we hope God sees us.

“Frances Ha” is streaming on Netflix, AMC+, and the Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+. You can also borrow it on Kanopy, which may be available through your local library.

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