A slight and largely charming portrait of post-college woes, Noah Baumbach’s deceptively simple “Frances Ha” is breezier than any of his previous ventures and indeed features considerably less ambition than his earlier work. However, that’s hardly an indictment for a movie so eager to please and thoroughly in tune with the themes percolating throughout Baumbach’s career. Shot in black-and-white video that lends this New York odyssey a scrappy feel, “Frances Ha” foregrounds a characteristically endearing Greta Gerwig performance defined by her usual onscreen combination of high energy wit and awkward self-effacement.
Unsurprisingly, it’s those very qualities that sync nicely with the movie’s acerbic script (real-life couple Baumbach and Gerwig share writing credit). While playfully bohemian and enamored of a New York youth culture as much reminiscent of Whit Stillman’s oeuvre as Baumbach’s own efforts, “Frances Ha” never overreaches; instead, it settles for a series of smart riffs on arrested development that meander along in accordance with the rhythms of the life it depicts.
As the eponymous Frances, Gerwig credibly portrays a disoriented Vassar College grad attempting to lead a stable life in New York City. At first she inhabits a bubble of ignorance alongside her best pal Sophie (rising star and Sting daughter Mickey Sumner), an equally spirited young woman with whom Frances spends her days running amuck in the city. “We’re the same person,” Frances routinely suggests, an apt assertion until Sophie decides to move out.
That first indication that the world is changing faster than Frances can keep pace is followed by many more as she continues to eke out a living apprenticing for a post-modern dance company while perpetually couch-surfing. The saga of her nomadic existence takes center stage as title cards routinely crop up to describe Frances’ continually shifting homes, which range from Brooklyn to her parents’ place in Sacramento, a random jaunt around Paris and another in upstate New York, where she wastes a summer at her alma mater. While Sophie settles into domestic life with her longtime boyfriend and drifts out of the picture, Frances merely stumbles along.
At times, “Frances Ha” strains from emphasizing the characters’ snarkiness and disregarding plot. By routinely going nowhere, however, the movie eventually finds a distinctive voice that carries it through. To its credit, “Frances Ha” avoids building to a conclusion that might tidy the shrewd depiction of its protagonist’s directionless trajectory. Instead, it lingers in Frances’ terminal uncertainties.
And she has enough of those to fill more sketches than the story can contain. Routinely describing herself as “undateable,” Frances breaks up with her boyfriend in an early scene and remains a loner for the duration of the movie. The particulars of her romantic dysfunction are both cringeworthy and amusingly daft (on one date, she makes a loud honking noise to deter the man from making a move).
Occasionally, Frances’ uneasy encounters with people more professionally and personally accomplished strain from redundancy, but even then, the atmosphere holds strong. Ebullient music choices, from banjo riffs to a histrionic orchestral score, initially underscore her carefree existence and then cleverly play against her mounting frustrations.
Considerably upbeat by Baumbach’s standards, “Frances Ha” is loaded with effective one-liners (“Don’t treat me like a three-hour brunch friend,” she snaps at Sophie). Gerwig delivers so many guffaw-worthy quips that even Frances admits that her life is “like a sitcom.” Sans laugh track, however, the jokes in “Frances Ha” also point to its lead character’s insecurities. In a moment clearly not positioned for humor, she confesses, “I’m not a real person yet.” A return to the terrain of Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” and “Kicking and Screaming,” the movie amplifies similar coming-of-age phobias with uncomfortable details.
Nevertheless, Telluride audiences at the movie’s first public screening were quick to make one direct television comparison: HBO’s “Girls,” which also magnifies a young woman flailing in New York as she struggles to find a job. It’s a handy reference point (and not only because “Girls” actor Adam Driver surfaces as one of Frances’ many roommates), but “Frances Ha” has a comparatively scattershot approach. A snapshot of a life in transition, the movie’s aimlessness is its greatest strength.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? One of the few acquisition titles premiering at the Telluride Film Festival, “Frances Ha” next plays at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals. It’s likely to find a home with a midsize distributor and perform decently in limited release due to the joint visibility that Baumbach and Gerwig bring to the project.