Frances Ha is a Noah Baumbach film without bitterness. This is perhaps unexpected, given the man’s track record. Greenberg is practically an essay on acerbity, while The Squid and the Whale traffics in plenty of divorce-inspired acrimony. That doesn’t mean that his prior work is somehow one-dimensional or excessively pessimistic, far from it. Rather, it makes his newest feature a surprising deviation into joy, if not necessarily optimism. There’s no doubt that this shift comes courtesy of Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script and lights up the screen with her performance. It is a collaboration that blends the artistic sensibilities of Baumbach and Gerwig into a new take on the post-college identity crisis.
The lack of belligerence, importantly, is not because the protagonist has nothing about which to be bitter. Frances (Gerwig) is 27 years old, living in Brooklyn, and trying to support herself as an apprentice dancer. Her friends all seem to be doing much better than she is, finding good jobs and nice apartments they can afford. They get progressively more irritating, settling down to married life with Goldman Sachs like irritating bit characters in a Woody Allen party scene. Meanwhile Frances herself is taking step after step in the other direction, losing roommates, jobs and places to live. Yet where Ben Stiller’s Greenberg would just get aggravated and darkly comic, Gerwig has a joie de vivre that refuses to let the film sting.
Frances starts out living with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her best friend from college. They live like “an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore,” spending almost every last moment in joyful cohabitation. More than her dancing, more than her boyfriend, Sophie is the most important thing in Frances’ life. When that boyfriend breaks up with her because she isn’t willing to move in with him and leave Sophie, Frances seems almost indifferent. It is not until Sophie moves out shortly after that Frances begins the long confrontation with real life that drives the film.
Frances Ha is very episodic, and even uses chapter titles to delineate each time its heroine moves to a new apartment. The result is a structure that builds from increasing tension between Gerwig’s bouncy performance and the Baumbachian real world. From dinner parties to awkward confrontations with employment, it is as if the film’s primary motivation is to see how far Frances can be pushed without losing her smile. There are many blithe and insightful moments that follow this pattern, but one is particularly emblematic.
When Frances gets a tax rebate, she takes Lev (Adam Driver) out to dinner. It’s definitely a date, but it’s Frances and therefore it’s more whimsical than one might anticipate. She insists on paying, so when her credit card gets declined she also insists on going to get cash. Baumbach treats his audience to an entertainingly shot sequence of his heroine running through the streets of New York in desperate pursuit of an ATM. It takes much longer than it should, and after finally succeeding she falls flat on her face on the dash back to the restaurant. Her elbow is bleeding, not that she’s noticed, and Lev takes her home to handle the minor medical emergency.
Gerwig’s Frances is a charmingly blended cocktail of naïve optimism, whimsical determination and slapstick. Baumbach shows her as a dancer on the stage and in rehearsals, but also in the wider world. She gracefully speeds down the street, occasionally dances for friends, and even adds grace to her natural clumsiness. She projects an oblivious confidence, making rash decisions and ignoring good advice in the interest of seeming in control of her life. Frances lies about her accomplishments not because she is jealous of the success of those around her, but because of the awkwardness in being the only one in the room who can’t nonchalantly brag. When she speaks, one can almost see the letters coming out of her mouth, as if she has become a vessel for her own thoughts without even realizing it. Her enunciation has the crisp clarity of someone unaware of the own implications of her words.
Aided by the film’s unassumingly warm cinematography and astutely chosen soundtrack, each scene ratchets up the urgency of its protagonist’s need to grow and learn. And, for the most part, the driving conflict between Frances and the real world achieves a beautiful sense of balance. Frances Ha is exceptional when it gets this right. Yet, in the end, one cannot help but wonder. The film’s most memorable moments are those that capitalize on Gerwig’s graceful inelegance in a world that moves in another direction. Its harmonic conclusion is therefore surprising, wrapping things up with a sense of accomplishment that feels as if it were lifted from another film. Frances Ha effortlessly attains a deep and affecting ambiguity, only to unceremoniously toss it away.
The Upside: Some of the best line delivery of the year is in this film, particularly between Sumner and Gerwig.
The Downside: The danger of falling into the too-cute manic pixie dream girl motif is always present, even if it only becomes problematic toward the end.
On the side: There is now a New York City ordinance that requires all films shot in Brooklyn to cast Adam Driver.