Watching “Frances Ha”
The films of Noah Baumbach often find characters at unsettled moments in their lives.
His brilliant debut, 1995’s “Kicking and Screaming,” focused on a group of directionless friends in the year following their college graduation. His 2010 film “Greenberg” cast its lens on an abrasive middle-aged man who moves home to Los Angeles to housesit for his brother and winds up reuniting with and alienating his old friends. Baumbach’s latest film, the extremely enjoyable “Frances Ha,” tells the story of a young woman who just can’t seem to grow up and get her act together, even though her friends are making the transition to adulthood and leaving her behind.
“Frances Ha” is filmed in lustrous black-and-white, and its fluidity, attention to young adults and sense of joy and heartache recall the films of the French New Wave. But the movie is also clearly influenced by the low-budget American independent films that fall into the so-called mumblecore subgenre. These movies often focus on the dysfunctional romantic lives and career dissatisfaction of aimless young adults. At their best, they have a blunt honesty and sexual frankness that tends to be lacking from more mainstream films; at their worst, they are poorly shot and ugly. It’s as if Baumbach watched these films and thought, “I can make a better mumblecore film,” rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
“Frances Ha” follows its titular character through a series of moves. As the film opens, Frances (Greta Gerwig, who developed the character and co-wrote the script with Baumbach, her significant other), is living in an apartment with her best friend from college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who abruptly announces that she plans to move to a new apartment in Tribeca — an apartment that Frances couldn’t possibly afford to live in. Because while Sophie has a decent job at Random House and a wealthy boyfriend, Frances has been working as an apprentice at a dance company for about five years, and just broke up with her boyfriend. After Sophie moves out, Frances lives in a succession of places — with two obnoxious guys, with a fellow dancer, in a dorm at her alma mater (Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie) when she takes a job as a resident adviser for the summer. Proving that you can’t go home again or, at least, back to college, Frances endures a series of small humiliations at Vassar: She isn’t allowed to take a dance course, and when she tries to sneak a smoke in the woods, she’s informed there’s no smoking. Anyone old enough to recall cutting through throngs of smokers on their way in and out of campus buildings will find this scene very funny.
“Frances Ha” is well observed, smart and frequently hilarious. Gerwig, who got her start in mumblecore films, is adorable; in fact, Frances is one of the few Baumbach protagonists who’s actually likable, and you sense that she’s talented and fun to be around even when she’s making poor decisions. (“I’m sorry! I’m not a real person yet!” she exclaims when her credit card is denied at a restaurant.) This is a welcome change of pace after “Greenberg,” an interesting film built around a very difficult person. (Gerwig co-starred in that film, as a woman inexplicably attracted to a total head case.)
If “Frances Ha” resembles any of Baumbach’s films, it’s probably “Kicking and Screaming,” with its sharp insights into post-collegiate malaise. (If you just graduated from college, go watch this film now.) Like “Kicking and Screaming,” “Frances Ha” is wistful and touching, moving and sad. Just as the guys in “Kicking and Screaming” slowly grew apart as they struggled to adapt to the real world, Frances and Sophie find their friendship at a crossroads. The film’s main source of drama concerns whether their friendship is strong enough to survive marriage, home ownership and all of the stuff I’ve been told goes along with being a grown up.
For a while, I wasn’t sure “Frances Ha” would resolve itself in a way I found satisfactory. It seemed like a series of loosely connected vignettes that wouldn’t quite build into a cohesive and meaningful whole. But I was mistaken. The closing section, which depicts Frances’ SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! maturation process, builds to a charming finish. This is the rare film that’s both cutting and magical, that’s light on its feet while also packing an emotional wallop.
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