‘Frances Ha’ Review
‘Frances Ha’ is the movie I imagine Woody Allen would make today if Woody Allen wasn’t 77 years old and ensconced in an impermeable bubble of wealth and fame. Unlike Woody’s recent films — some of which are actually pretty entertaining — Noah Baumbach still feels in touch with, as David Bowie puts it in a song that makes an effective appearance in the film, modern love. His characters live on the Lower rather than the Upper East Side. They watch television instead of Ingmar Bergman movies. They struggle to make ends meet as artists but poo-poo potential jobs at ‘Saturday Night Live‘ because “it’s gone so downhill.”
Some of the credit for this has to go to Greta Gerwig, who is not only the enormously charming star of ‘Frances Ha,’ but also its co-writer as well. Baumbach is 43; Gerwig is 29, just a few years removed from her character. The movie’s precise deadpan timing and warmth of character could come from Baumbach, whose previously films — including “Kicking and Screaming,” “The Squid and the Whale,” and “Greenberg” (also co-starring Gerwig) — all featured those characteristics. But that sense of authenticity almost certainly came from Gerwig.
She plays Frances, an aspiring dancer. Her job with a New York City company is tenuous and getting shakier all the time. But at least she’s got her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who she loves so much she actually turns down an offer to move in with a boyfriend (a boyfriend, admittedly, she clearly doesn’t see much of a future with) to remain in her shared hovel with her beloved roomie. But then comes the unthinkable: Sophie decides to move in with her boyfriend, leaving Frances not only in the lurch for rent money but at a loss of what to do with herself. Frances often tells people that she and Sophie are “the same person with different hair.” Getting platonically dumped by Sophie is like breaking up with herself.
That sense of dislocation and misplaced identity fuel the more serious side of ‘Frances Ha,’ which is balanced by an endless supply of small but brilliant comic observations. After Sophie abandons Frances, she winds up sleeping on the couch of a pair of well-off, artsy types, including Benji (Michael Zegen), who jokingly calls Frances “undate-able” and seems desperately to want to make a move on her but never quite works up the nerve. Later, Frances temporarily moves in with another member of dance company, who brings her to a deliciously uncomfortable dinner party full of awkward conversations and even more awkward silences. Frances and Sophie continue crossing paths, hanging out occasionally, but never getting back together. The tension between them grows.
‘Frances Ha,’ which has the glistening, black and white photography of some lost indie movie of the 1970s, belongs to an interesting recent trend of personal movies about characters in their early and late 20s growing up and growing apart. Like David Chase‘s ‘Not Fade Away,’ and Olivier Assayas’ ‘Something In the Air,’ Baumbach’s film is the story of how friendships fall apart, not so much because of anything anyone does, but because of the inexorable march of time, which pushes people on paths toward their individual destinies. For years, you’re surrounded by people you went to high school and college with that you can’t imagine living without. And then, one day, you look up, and they’re all gone.
Baumbach’s edge over Chase and Assayas (although their movies are both really good too) is Gerwig, who rose quickly through the ranks of the mumblecore movement of ultra low budget independent filmmakers and graduated to mainstream Hollywood roles in films like ‘No Strings Attached’ and the remake of ‘Arthur.’ She made a name for herself with ultra-naturalistic acting and a certain kind of poetic inelegance; as Frances, she maintains the former while moving gracefully and comfortably into an older, more mature, more articulate role. She’s terrific. No wonder Woody Allen cast her in his last movie.
‘Frances Ha’ is now playing in limited release.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’