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When one crisis isn't enough

Frances Ha adds quarter-life fears to life's growing pile of angst

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Crisis, what crisis?

Frances Ha, the new Noah Baumbach film that opened last week in Winnipeg, follows a 27-year-old New Yorker as she negotiates a quarter-life crisis. And, yes, that's a thing now.

Greta Gerwig plays Frances, who stumbles through early adulthood with an endearing combination of clumsiness and grace. Lurching through apartments, jobs and relationships, she waits for grown-up life to kick in.

"I'm so embarrassed," she explains to a friend when yet another everyday situation goes sideways. "I'm not a real person yet."

The day after I saw Frances Ha, I flew to Calgary to celebrate what I'm going to call "a milestone birthday" with four friends. We met back in junior high, survived adolescence together, kept in touch through our 20s and 30s and beyond. We have now reached an age commonly associated with the onset of the midlife crisis.

It was hard not to get into a life-crisis competition. Could it be that the quarter-life crisis if the new midlife crisis?

The midlife crisis was officially named in 1965 by Elliott Jacques. The Canadian psychoanalyst described a phenomenon in which middle-aged men and women recognize their mortality, prompting a re-evaluation of their lives that can involve regret and recrimination. In popular culture, the midlife crisis is often reduced to cliches of shiny red sports cars and plastic surgery.

The quarter-life crisis is newer and, of course, much, much trendier. The term has been tossed around in recent years to describe a particular post-college slump in which young people feel caught between social and personal expectations and the hard slog of "the real world." Quarter-lifers often succumb to depression and anxiety while struggling to find a sense of identity and purpose (not to mention a decent job). In popular culture, the quarter-life crisis is often seen in wistful indie films that have good soundtracks.

(It should be noted that a mid- or quarter-life crisis is, in one sense, a luxury, which requires a certain amount of middle-class time, energy and choice. Frances, after all, is living in one of the greatest cities in the world, pursuing her dream of being a dancer. She may feel poor when her friends start to get regular jobs and earn regular money, but calling herself poor "is like an insult to actual poor people," as one friend points out.)

Of course, the contest between twentysomethings and forty- and fiftysomethings as to who is more crisis-ridden is just part of an ongoing intergenerational war in which Millennials view boomers and Gen X-ers as bores who hog all the good jobs, while boomers and Gen X-ers see Millennials as entitled, attenuated adolescents who need to stop whinging.

I don't know. Why can't we all get along?

On the surface, it might seem that the 27-year-olds, who are practically glowing with sex and health and hipness, are jumping the gun by claiming their very own age-related crisis. But Frances Ha, which is an excruciatingly painful, tender and funny little film, makes a convincing case for the tough, emotionally tricky nature of the quarter-life quandary.

Frances is beset by general young-adult bewilderment, wondering how jobs and family and money are all going to work out. She is also overwhelmed by stresses specific to current North American conditions, including high debt and economic uncertainty. Then there's the exhausting ordeal of navigating a culture that is loaded with irony and exquisitely attuned to surface appearances. ("This apartment is so... self-aware," comments one character as she casts a critical eye over Frances's new digs.)

After hours of talk -- and a few bottles of wine -- my friends and I decided middle age is probably easier than youth. Our issues are less glamorous -- aging parents, teenage children, more funerals to attend -- but we're more comfortable with ourselves. And having already survived our quarter-life crises, we know we'll come through the midlife version.

Now, if I could just combine this hard-won middle-aged hindsight with a bit of Frances's twenty-something energy, I'd have it made.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 D12

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