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Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) are best friends in the movie Frances Ha.
Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) are best friends in the movie Frances Ha.

The modern female friendship: Why it’s a complicated little thing Add to ...

In the new film Frances Ha, Frances and Sophie are best friends. They are roommates who play fight like kittens and end phone calls with “I love you.” Says Frances, who is played by Greta Gerwig: “We’re the same person, different hair.”

Needless to say, they are 27, newly embarked on unsteady careers and unsteadier romantic lives. They split apart, and so does Frances, in pain from the loss of her friend, and her failed coming-of-age. It’s a melancholic comedy, shot in black and white by Noah Baumbach (co-written with 27 year-old Gerwig), who is in his 40s, and at a distance from the reverberations of young adult friendship.

I liked the film very much, though I’m chronologically more Baumbachian than Gerwigian. It’s a humane, funny treatment of female friendship, in tune to the way that the end of platonic love can be as shot through with loss as any troubled sexual love. On TV, Lena Dunham’s Girls gazes at this landscape too, but with a much crueler eye. In fact, tender depictions of complicated friendships have lately been the domain of male comedy, in films such as I Love You, Man, or anything by Judd Apatow.

Frances Ha feels new, and most welcome, not just because it’s a non-slapstick portrait of female friendship (i.e. Bridesmaids), but because pop-culture depictions of female friendship can often feel oppressively narrow. The pure female friendship depicted in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Steel Magnolias, movies where women bond forever through thick and thin, idealizes women as nurturing, virtuous and built for friendship. As Carrie said on Sex and the City: “Maybe our girlfriends are our soulmates, and guys are just people to have fun with.” But many women can’t relate to that mythological, all-fulfilling female friendship – or we have it, and then we don’t, like Frances and Sophie.

I remember the intensity of those post-university-era friendships: the three-hour phone calls (on phones with cords), beer runs and crashing on friends’ futons. But along with that intimacy came all-out fights, or a slow drift apart. I have many great friends, but my relationships have never looked like Friends.

Of course, friendship does matter. A boatload of research suggests that friendship is linked to happiness. Non-romantic relationships can lead to improved mental and physical health. People with strong social ties are less likely to get common colds and recover from illnesses faster. Hell is not other people; hell is not having other people.

Yet friendship, in most Western societies, doesn’t get the cultural veneration it deserves, according to a lecture at Occidental College delivered by sociologists Lisa Wade and Caroline Heldman (available online).  For heterosexual women, particularly, romantic love and the finding of Mr. Right is perceived as the be-all and end-all of happiness. The family unit is the prize and goal of a fully realized adulthood. It’s a promise that ignores all those women – single or gay, even married – forging their happiness, and relieving their cold symptoms, through friendships.

But as imperative as friendship may be, and as much as pop culture sells it as the feminine norm, it’s not always easy to find – or keep – with age. Rebecca G. Adams, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, told The New York Times that sociologists consider three conditions integral to forming close friendships: “Proximity, repeated, unplanned interactions and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”

Each of these conditions get more difficult to achieve as we get older, giving rise to friend-finding sites such as Social Jane and Girlfrienders. We’re a peripatetic people now (New Zealand took my best friend). Unplanned interactions are harder when your BFF’s romantic partner puts down stakes on the futon half where you used to crash. Plus, who has the time to confide in each other? As Sophie finds a career and partner, and Frances doesn’t, the sheer amount of time that the two spent together shrinks, along with their relationship.

A shrinking social circle is a given in middle age. Of course, once the baby years hit, there’s an assumption that parents will become friends with the parents of their kids’ friends. On occasion, this flock of unknown adults in the park does seem like an unexpected pool of possibility. (Happy to hang with a great new couple, I have exclaimed: “It’s like we’re in university again!”) But at other times, circumstantial playground friendships feel forced and arbitrary. (Less happily: “It’s like we’re in high school again.”)

Similarly, when a good male friend partners up, women are often expected to inherit the girlfriend or wife. Maintaining an independent relationship with the guy becomes difficult. I resist the biological essentialism in the idea that men and women can’t be friends, yet it does feel strange to pick up the phone and call an old guy friend and say: “Want to go for a beer?” while his wife is bathing the kids.

But maybe these rifts are more normal than everlasting Sex and the City bonds: One study found that most friendships last about seven years. That’s about as long as Frances and Sophie get, which is enough time to make lovely and recognizable art out of the messy reality of modern friendship.

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