It starts like any other love story – there is dancing and music and laughter and secrets and plans – but no matter how it might look at first blush, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha isn’t a film about a pair of twentysomethings falling in and out of love in New York City, it’s a film about a pair of twentysomethings falling in and out of friendship in New York City. The result is something far more rich and rewarding than the vast majority of wide release, standard issue romantic comedies, and perhaps star Greta Gerwig‘s most charming performance yet.
When it comes to romance, Frances (Gerwig) isn’t so concerned with finding a boyfriend, since she’s quite perfectly happy with her life as is, because even though it includes a potentially dead-end career (she’s a modern dancer who can’t really dance), it also includes her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Well, for now. Most love stories do, after all, end. When Sophie unceremoniously (and seemingly unfeelingly) moves out on Frances in favor of a better apartment in a better zip code, the divide between the pair seems clearer than ever. Sophie has matured beyond Frances, at least in a traditional sense, and Sophie’s allegiances now lay with her boyfriend Patch (yes, Patch) and her blossoming career in publishing (though Frances never fails to remind people that Sophie doesn’t even really read). Her friendship with Sophie has served as the defining relationship in Frances’ current life, and when she is “dumped” (even Frances explains it to people as such) by the person who has filled the soulmate slot for so long, Frances’ entire life is thrown into turmoil and upheaval.
It may all sound a bit insufferable (and, yes, a bit like Girls or any other number of features or shows about twentysomething gals in the big city), but Frances Ha has one hell of an ace up its sleeve in the form of the ceaselessly lovely and unrelentingly engaging Gerwig.
Gerwig’s success as Frances is doubtless (at least partially) due to her co-writing credit (along with Baumbach) on the film, as the infectiously delightful exuberance of Frances that nearly vibrates off the screen is clearly tailor-made for the actress. Frances may be a bit lost and a bit of a loser, but she’s also so fully herself, such a hugely satisfying presence, that her personal journey cannot help but be totally engaging. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Baumbach and Gerwig have eschewed traditional genre tropes for Frances Ha – there’s never going to be some random hot dude who comes along just to “save” Frances but, more importantly, there doesn’t need to be – and have instead focused on the intense pleasure and pain of deep friendships, the kind that are profound enough and important enough to supersede romantic dalliances.
Frances bounces between residences and friendships in search of a home to fill the void left by Sophie (who flits back into and then again out of Frances’ life with an aching regularity), moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan to Sacramento to her former college and back, with a hilariously heartbreaking stopover in Paris along the way. Frequently waylaid, continuously struck down, Frances never loses her charm, positivity, and warmth, and it’s nothing short of joyful to watch Gerwig on screen (even when she’s making a total ass out of herself, which happens more often than you’d likely expect).
The plot of Frances Ha might prove simple, but the character of Frances herself is a wonderfully realistic and fully realized one, and that’s what makes the entire film just so damn satisfying and delightful to watch. Frances Ha is essentially a one-woman show, but Gerwig is more than up for the task, and her work here is some of her finest and most feeling yet.
The Upside: A warm and infectiously lovely performance from Gerwig, an extremely funny and real storyline, exuberantly filmed (did we fail to mention that the film is in black and white? we must have forgotten the lack of color, and you will, too).
The Downside: The film may have limited appeal to audiences of a certain age (your dad might not like this one), needs more Adam Driver.
On the Side: The film very well could have been called just Frances, but Baumbach and Gerwig didn’t want to step on the toes of the other Frances film (a courtesy that they wish that other Kicking and Screaming extended to them).