Twenty-seven is a dangerous year. It's a lethal age for rock stars (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse--all dead at 27). Brainpower starts to decline around 27, or so says a study out of the University of Virginia. And according to actress Greta Gerwig, 27 is the last time you're allowed to ask a guest, "Do you want to see my room?"
Gerwig knows a lot about the importance of being 27. It's the subject of her new film, Frances Ha (in limited release May 17), which she stars in and co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach, who is also her boyfriend of a year and a half. The two previously worked together on 2010's Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller; after it wrapped, Baumbach e-mailed Gerwig, then 26, to ask what was on her mind as she approached the big 2-7. She responded with a list of thinking patterns (e.g., not believing anyone who's successful could also be insecure) and faux pas (e.g., accidentally insulting a would-be mentor) peculiar to her cohort. That e-mail planted the seeds of Frances Ha's screenplay.
"I felt like I could see the movie already," says Baumbach, 43, best known for the mordant Oscar-nominated drama The Squid and the Whale (2005).
In a sense, audiences have seen incarnations of Frances already too. In her most memorable movies, such as Greenberg and 2007's Hannah Takes the Stairs, Gerwig cemented her indie It-girl status in roles that emphasized the naiveté, awkwardness and indecision of the third decade of life. In Frances Ha, these traits become liabilities: Frances' best friendship deteriorates, her dancing career stalls, and she finds herself without a home amid sky-high New York City rents. But the movie never mopes; shot in silvery black-and-white, it's generous toward Frances and her faults (and sunnier than Baumbach's previous films). It doesn't obsess about dating. Frances is full of joy, even in the midst of hardship. When she settles down, it's with herself.
It's been a few years since she sent that fateful e-mail to Baumbach, and Gerwig, now 29, says she can't recall how much of it was based on her own experiences. "So much of writing is like baking a cake," she says. "I can't tell you where the sugar is." One warm April afternoon, she arrives for a look around the New Museum on Manhattan's Lower East Side in a lacy dress and gold-accented wedges, her style miles from Frances' baggy, Elaine Benes--ish aesthetic. Gerwig knows that some viewers confuse her with her characters--and confuse her naturalistic acting style with not acting at all--but she says it doesn't bother her.
"In many ways, Frances is like a comic persona for Greta," Baumbach says. "This is an extreme example, but it's like Inspector Clouseau is to Peter Sellers. It's so her but so not her at the same time." (Her next steps are further from life: she'll act in a film by French director Mia Hansen-Love and then wants to write movies that aren't about white women her own age.)