Noel Baumbach’s films frequently involve individuals in their twenties, fresh out of college, contemplating their uncertain futures and struggling to make the transition to what is commonly referred to as “the real world.” Life’s stages and the sometimes awkward transitions between them provide the basis for much of Baumbach’s writing. In his 2012 film, co-written with lead actress and real-life romantic partner Greta Gerwig, “Frances Ha,” the couple focus on Gerwig’s character and her attempts at negotiating the transition towards adulthood following her roommate’s decision to move out of their shared apartment to begin a new, more independent life. The role of life transitions is certainly at the center of “Frances Ha.” The theme of growing up is central to Baumbach’s vision, evident in the following quote regarding his approach to “Frances Ha” and to his larger body of work:
“For me, this is just as personal a film as any of them. Obviously, this is a story of a 27-year-old girl and I’m a 43-year-old guy, but that time in my life was similarly one of big change and transition for me. A change and transition I didn’t realize I was in as I was in it. So, as Greta and I were exploring this character and this milieu, I was immediately very connected to it; very drawn to it.”
“Frances Ha,” as Baumbach points out, was made when he was in his 40s and an established filmmaker. If one looks back through that body of work, one can detect quite easily the common thread that runs through it. “Kicking and Screaming” (2005) is about a group of recent college graduates contemplating their futures. These college graduates, in their twenties, begin to recognize the gravity of their situation – in effect, that life does involve transitions and that there really is no turning back. Max in particular looks askance at the unidirectional path on which he is embarked:
Max: I’m too nostalgic. I admit it.
Skippy: We graduated four months ago. What can you possibly be nostalgic for?
Max: I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur.
Baumbach’s interest in the theme of transitions through stages of life is a subject that is very much a part of his life and work. In a May 2013 interview with National Public Radio, he made the following observation regarding his approach to such transitions and the role they play in his films:
"What I didn't exactly know then ... [is that] I was not injecting enough adventure into my life at the time," he tells Fresh Air. " I was about to go into a period of my life that [involved] vast individual change ... I was about to begin that, and I think change a lot personally and, I think, change as a filmmaker."
That said, Baumbach sees a thematic thread throughout his work.
"I think all [my movies] are essentially about transition," he says, "and about squaring who you want to be with who you actually are."
Noah Baumbach’s films, not surprisingly, are a reflection of his influences and temperament. They are, as he acknowledges, deeply personal. The aging process, especially when one passes 30, but especially when one reaches 40, is a time of reflection for many people. It is a time when the decisions that set one on his or her path were solidified, and the prospects of changing directions are slim.