Review: Frances Ha (2013)

Frances Ha represents a huge step forward after the execrable, hateful experience that was Noah Baumbach’s previous feature, Greenberg. Instead, Frances Ha is a fleet-footed and at times joyous film that captures the pain and dreams of twenty-something New Yorkers as well as any other in this decade.

The definite difference-maker here is Greta Gerwig as Frances. I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that this is a career-defining performance that will be remembered for a long time; a Diane Keaton as Annie Hall-level feat of characterization and output of goofball energy. Gerwig co-wrote the film and it is tempting for me to attribute the film’s sheer goodheartedness in large part to her. I enjoyed Gerwig in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, and I don’t think it is an accident that this film has more than a touch of Stillman’s sensibility, reminding me particularly of The Last Days of Disco.

Frances is a 27-year-old trying to make it as a dancer in New York City, living with her best friend Sophie in Brooklyn. Frances and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) have a deep bond that transcends mere friendship; their experiences in New York, pursuing both fun and their careers, have become so intertwined with their relationship that Frances can’t imagine leaving Sophie as a roommate when her boyfriend asks her to move in. When Sophie later tells Frances that she is going to move in with her boyfriend, to a trendy Tribeca apartment, it comes as a shock to Frances, triggering the journey that she goes on in the film from Brooklyn, to Chinatown, home to Sacramento, to Paris, and back to her old college, Vassar.

It’s a testament to the film that while romance occupies a significant part of the characters' lives (of course), the focus of the film is the homosocial relationships of young people who share each others lives. Two young men, Benji and Lev (played by Girls’ Adam Driver), whom Frances lives with at one point, offer a counterpoint to the female focus of Frances and Sophie, but the film avoids cliché in having a romantic pairing provide a comedic solution in the classical sense. If there is a romantic possibility in Frances’ future, it won’t heal her rift with Sophie nor help her make the economic and occupational decisions she needs to in order to grow up.

It is hard at times to separate the character of Frances from Gerwig, and that seems intentional, down to the casting of Gerwig’s parents as Frances’ in the Sacramento scenes. Gerwig plays Frances not as a manic pixie dream girl, but rather as a flawed and realistic example of a modern young woman. Frances’ awkwardness and lack of comfort in her own skin seem to clash with her desire to be a dancer, but at the moments when Frances lets loose, skipping across the black and white cityscape you can see a glimmer of why she would make a good dancer despite it all.

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The decision to shoot in black and white seems like a wise one, as the lighting emphasizes the facial features and reactions of characters, while reminding the viewer of other classic New York films shot in black and white, the most obvious touchpoint being Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The cinematography stays light and fluid, reflecting Frances' personality. The soundtrack exchanges Gershwin for David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”

Gerwig’s ability to remain an attractive personality despite the series of poor decisions her character makes reminds me of nothing less than Barbara Stanwyck in the melodrama classic Stella Dallas. She has a knack for comic timing and character moments that horrify the audience, but never do we doubt her ability as a leading lady. This is the kind of female role that is rarely seen in contemporary American film. [Why?]

In the end, Frances Ha surprised me. I had tired of Baumbach’s disdain for his characters and audience and was fully prepared to dislike it. Instead I had one of the richer film-going experiences of the summer. In the film’s stripped down 86 min, we go on a personal journey with Gerwig’s Frances, facing the challenges of growing up in a world where the social and economic norms that determine “adulthood” are increasingly called into question or put out of reach. This film is not merely funny, but, along with Linklater’s Before Midnight, a touching portrait of contemporary life and modern love (both romance and friendship).

8 out of 10

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; starring Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen.