Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig.
Starring: Greta Gerwig (Frances), Mickey Sumner (Sophie), Michael Esper (Dan), Adam Driver (Lev), Michael Zegen (Benji), Charlotte d'Amboise (Colleen), Grace Gummer (Rachel), Patrick Heusinger (Patch).
Greta Gerwig is one of the most talented, smart, funny, adorable actresses working right now – although pretty much only Noah Baumbach has given her roles that allow that full potential to be realized. She worked for years in Mumblecore movies – that were mostly insufferable, except for her presence. Her performance in Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010) was the best thing about a very good movie – while I admired Ben Stiller’s performance in that movie, and found him a suitable character to be at the center of a Baumbach movie, I kept wishing the movie would instead focus on Gerwig’s Florence – an even more fascinating character, and not quite the picture of female perfection we have come to expect in movie like Greenberg. That movie brought her wider attention – and since then, she’s been cast as the quirky friend in the Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher romcom No Strings Attached (2011), the love interest for Russell Brand in the remake of Arthur (2011), the awkward leader of a trio of college girls trying to help their school in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2012), and the cheated on girlfriend in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love (2012). None of those movies came close to capturing Gerwig’s awkward, funny, smart, adorable persona – they essentially wasted her talents. Perhaps that’s why she co-wrote Frances Ha with Baumbach – because this is the perfect vehicle for her and her talents. And if there is justice in the world, should make her a star.
The film is shot in black and white and has a visual style that recalls early Godard or Truffaut, and because it’s set in New York will remind other viewers of Woody Allen’s Manhattan – all three directors seem to be touchstones for Baumbach here. It stars Gerwig as Frances, a 27 year old graduate from a good school, who is deluding herself in two ways – the first that she will ever become a full time dancer in the company where she has spent 5 years as an apprentice (if you haven’t made it by the time your 27 as a dancer, you’re not going to), and the second is that her college best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) will be her best friend and roommate forever. “We’re practically the same person!” Frances tells anyone who will listen to her. The audience knows that Frances is deluding herself on both of these counts – and should be clear to Frances as well, the way the company director Colleen kindly drops hints that she should find something else, or get back into choreography, and the way Sophie cruelly dumps Frances on the subway to move in with another girl with the lame excuse “You know I’ve always wanted to live in Tribeca!”.
In some movies – okay, probably most movies – this would make Frances an annoying and frustrating character to spend an entire movie watching. But what separates a great movie like Frances Ha from a horrible movie like last year’s The Comedy, is not only how clearly the movie sees Frances, but also just how plain likable she is. Everyone loves Frances – even if they pity her. Throughout the course of the movie, she’ll move from one temporary house to the next – the apartment with Sophie, the apartment with two trust fund “artists”, one of whom she goes on a date with, although he doesn’t work out because he will sleep with anything that walks, and one she probably should date, but is too messed up to, her parents’ house at Christmas, the couch of a fellow dancer, a Parisian apartment for two days, her old school for the summer, and then finally, her own place. The movie marks the time by showing us these different spots along the way, as Frances is gradually stripped of her delusions.
The movie is humorous throughout – from the opening fight and breakup between Frances and her boyfriend, to the way she and Sophie compare sexual notes about their partners (“He could only finish with me lying flat on my stomach – all the important pieces are covered”), to an almost painful dinner party scene, where Frances hears news about Sophie that apparently everyone else knew except her, and reacts as if she was just punched in the gut, yet tries to keep smiling throughout. Frances Ha does many things well, but perhaps above all, it shows the changing nature of friendship – as Frances gradually has to except that her friend Sophie is now with “Patches” – even if he likes to come in her face, and she quits her good job in publishing to follow him to Japan, and eventually admits that she is miserable with him during a long drunken night in which Frances thinks everything is returning to “normal”, only to once again have it taken away in the harsh light of day.
Frances Ha is refreshing in many ways – it’s funny, but in a smart way, like the best Woody Allen films. And yet, this is a film about a woman – not a Woody Allen woman or a picture of female perfection, but a real woman, flaws and all. It’s also nice to see a movie about New York where money is actually mentioned – when Frances mentions she’s poor, her trust friend Benji tells her “that’s offensive to actual poor people” – but when you’re unemployed, have no money, and have middle class parents who can’t afford to let you live the life of an artist in New York, you’re poor. And the movie has one of those glorious musical moments in film, where you know as you’re watching it you will never be able to hear the song without thinking of that moment in the film – in this case, Frances dancing though the streets of New York set to David Bowie’s Modern Love.
The only complaint I have about the movie is that I think it ends a little too easily. I’m not quite sure I believe that everything would work out quite as quickly as everything works out in Frances Ha. And yet, I find that to be a minor complaint – and one I don’t really mind. By the end of the movie, you’re rooting for Frances – and it’s nice to see her happy.