Loose, limber and driven by a fierce energy and staccato/pause rhythm we haven’t seen previously from this filmmaker, Noah Baumbach‘s sublime “Frances Ha” is a fresh and vivacious near-reinvention of the director/writer’s comedic milieu. An enchanting riff on friendship and the late-20-something rite of passage into true adulthood, while the buoyant comedy does focus on those who still don’t have their shit together, it is however, leagues more rich and emotionally layered than the average arrested development dilemma that seems to characterize 20/30-something comedies of late.
The picture’s distinctly different tone may be due in part to the screenplay written by the film’s lead actress, Greta Gerwig, and its giddy mood; not a descriptor one usually associates with Baumbach. Where authorship is concerned, “Frances Ha” may be Baumbach’s truest collaboration insofar as if one had to blindly choose, they might think the picture bore the more distinct stamp of Gerwig compared to its auteur. This is a good thing, and conveys how fresh, synergetic and contradistinctive “Frances Ha” feels compared to previous Baumbach works featuring cruel and unsympathetic characters.
Living in New York while barely affording to be there, being an dance apprentice without ever actually being a real dancer, Frances (Greta Gerwig in what is easily her finest peformance to date) is a childlike woman of half-measures who is almost always falling short. Obsessed with her best friend and roommate Sophie (a strikingly good Mickey Sumner), “we’re like the same person only with different hair,” Frances believes the inseparable duo breathe the same air. And yet, when a fancier bedroom in a Tribeca apartment opens up, Sophie bolts for the door. Fully-formed, complex and interesting, both Frances and Sophie are terrifically well-written, real characters with Gerwig and Sumner saturating the material with the rich and lived-in quality of true-life best friends.
Shot in digital black and white, and dealing with the “undateable” side of an awkwardly exuberant and lost protagonist, Baumbach’s latest is effortlessly charming and complex, and possibly answers the question (if it was ever posed): what would happen if Woody Allen, “Breathless,” and HBO’s “Girls” had a baby together? (“Girls” admittedly being perhaps a broad and cheap signifier for anything about female-centric life in New York that’s funny, sharp and well-observed, like this film).
Recently single, the transient Frances goes on a few casual dates with Miles (Adam Driver), but eventually lands as the third in a “Three’s Company” sitcom situation of three single roommates who all platonically share a spacious Chinatown apartment. But as Frances’ dance aspirations don’t take off and her financial situations worsens, (contrasted with her roommates, who are both “artists” sailing along on family money) the 27-year-old begins to spiral. Exacerbating her emotional condition is the growing distance between her and Sophie who is now getting serious with her investment banker douchebag boyfriend who goes by the name of Patches (Patrick Heusinger). Estranged from her best friend and hearing about significant changes in Sophie’s life only as asides from other people, Frances finds herself at sea, trying to redefine, or perhaps discover, her identity as the people around her grow up and drift away. What follows is a funny, sad and insightful journey of discovery and personal redemption.
Notions of class and ambition are also explored. Frances is one of those young New Yorkers who is perennially broke, moving from apartment to apartment. With professionally successful, privileged friends around, she carelessly books a flight to Paris on a whim when she’s at her lowest point, seemingly to try to create the sense of having the means to be so impractical.
Freewheeling, spontaneous, and evidently shot on the fly in secrecy (the project was never announced until it was completed and in the Telluride roster), again, it might be his co-writer, but “Frances Ha,” feels like a b-12 shot that re-energizes Baumbach’s mode of filmmaking. His recent films generally centered on families behaving cruelly and irresponsibly, and dysfunctional leads who need to adjust their sets. But while Frances as a struggling dancer is as dysfunctional as, say, Roger Greenberg, there’s a significant contrasting tonal shift: this clumsy and aimless character is endearingly lost and impossible not to root for.
Music is practically another character in the movie, to a degree never seen in a Baumbach picture before and giving it much of its effervescence. While you may never be able to hear David Bowie’s “Modern Love” again without picturing its “Frances Ha” context, and though the picture includes pop songs by The Rolling Stones (“Rocks Off”), Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson and Hot Chocolate (“Every 1’s a Winner”), the dramedy is mostly marked by the enchanting use of score material by the late French composer Georges Delerue, known for his work with Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
The picture is also fresh in its rhythm, trading off between montages of restless liveliness and long breaths of sequences marked by unmotivated camera movement and long shots. Comparisons to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” by way of Brooklyn will likely rear their head as well, but the characters in “Frances Ha” speak in a distinctly different cadence, and all correlations will be superficial and mostly due to the shared look and tenor of a black and white New York-set comedy. Co-starring Adam Driver (of “Girls,” cast before the show had aired) and Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter), the picture also features cameos by “Kicking And Screaming” lead Josh Hamilton and musician couple Dean Wareham And Britta Phillips (ex of Luna) who also provide some of the film’s appropriately ebullient score.
While at times “magical” and lighter than air (the former being a phrase Frances uses often, ostensibly to will its wonder into her uncertain life), Baumbach’s sixth feature-length effort is also tremendously sad at times. Seemingly incapable of keeping herself afloat, Frances falls further from grace into pits of patheticness and fits of lying to put on a brave face. Quixotic and wishing her life to be a special dream, one conflict after another floats this desire further and further from her reality. But the way the picture (and she) organically and patiently circles back to her winning strengths and eventual independence is well-earned. A sparkling reclamation vibe dovetails with Frances lifting herself out of the darkness, culminating in a touching, crowd-pleasing ending.
“Frances Ha” is likely going to appear as one of Baumbach’s most accessible and joyous works. For those (like us) who have been there all along the way, it marks an exciting new period in the filmmaker’s oeuvre and one that will hopefully yield many more collaborations with the endearing and charming Greta Gerwig. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from Telluride 2012. “Frances Ha” opens in theaters from Friday.