A Love Letter to ‘Frances Ha,’ One of the Year’s Best (and Most Recommendable) Films

By  · Published on November 11th, 2013

No, this piece will not be styled as an actual love letter to Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s charmer, due to hit cinephile-near-you shelves later this week with its Criterion Collection release, but it will be an intense appreciation of the film. (Consider this a warning if, for any reason, you’re averse to the feature – and also, what is wrong with you?)

Baumbach and Gerwig’s film first popped up as a somewhat minor attraction at last year’s Telluride Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. It sounded like a curiosity – a black and white Baumbach co-written by and starring the director’s real-life lady love, a slim feature about a wayward young New York City gal who is not actually good at a lot of things but who approaches challenges great and small with a plucky gusto. She lives in a shitty apartment in Brooklyn. She’s an interpretive dancer. Her best friend Sophie is the most important person in her life. If any of these details made you snarkily think something along the lines of “oh, but I’ve already seen Girls,” you’re not alone. I thought that, too. And, despite a hearty love of both Gerwig and Baumbach, I was burnt out on the director’s post-Margot at the Wedding sardonics and Gerwig’s lackluster turn in the even more lackluster Lola Versus.

My fears were unfounded.

I reviewed the film back in May, when the feature got a limited release and instantly rocketed to the top of my recommended list. In this racket called movie writing, I am constantly asked by family and friends what is good, what they should see, what my favorite recent film is. I am almost always wholly unprepared for these questions, inevitably answering with a string of obvious must-sees (12 Years a Slave and Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club have been standbys since this year’s TIFF, and I’ve folded in All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, and Inside Llewyn Davis over the past few weeks), before spluttering out the title of whatever I’ve last seen (which is why I’ve recommended Free Birds to people, a film I liked even though I realize it’s entirely insane). When you see an average of four films a week, it’s embarrassingly hard to remember, top of mind, the best ones. This sounds counterintuitive to my job and I apologize for that, but it’s just how things are (at least for me). Even if I remember a film that I genuinely loved, I must then make sure I am tailoring my answer for my audience. Remember, we’re not recommending Blue Is the Warmest Color to our grandparents, and even if I laughed like a moron at Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, I’m not likely to tell hip young friends to check it out post-haste.

Frances Ha, however, is a film with true crossover appeal. For entire months after first seeing the feature, it was my go-to answer to anyone who asked what was good, what they should see, what my favorite recent film was. I told parents and pals and singletons and married people and hairdressers and bar friends and strangers on the street who looked like they might possibly be in need of some movie recommendations.

When I reviewed the film in the spring, I termed it “witty” and “warm,” the sort of zingy, pull-quote friendly smash of alliterative nonsense that is easy to dismiss – except, in this case, it’s true. That’s what Frances Ha is – truly witty and actually warm. This film made me feel physically warm and fuzzy. It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving the theater post-viewing without a big, doofy smile on his or her face. It is happiness in a nifty, eighty-six-minute capsule. Time-released.

Baumbach and Gerwig’s film may center on the actress’ (warm and witty) Frances, but it gets its roots from Frances’ relationship with her best pal Sophie (Mickey Sumner, who you will be seeing a lot more of, and soon). Frances may not be good at many things, but she certainly thinks she is good at her friendship with Sophie, and the heart and drama of the film takes off when Sophie abandons her faithful pal for all the trappings of adulthood (a better apartment, a real job, an actual boyfriend). Frances Ha is a love story, but it’s a love story about friends (especially female friends, a highly relatable subject for most women), and one that places a premium on the emotional repercussions of a crumbling relationship that doesn’t have any romance to it. The girls might not be lovers, but Baumbach and Gerwig give their friendship the same weight (and even the same language and patterns) as any great love story, and it works to staggering effect. As I wrote in my review, the film focuses on the “intense pleasure and pain of deep friendships, the kind that are profound enough and important enough to supersede romantic dalliances.”

Frances, never one to be a sadsack even in the face of terrible circumstances, lights up the screen. It’s one of Gerwig’s best roles yet and, as I previously wrote, “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 is classic Gerwig, a new high point for the actress, and a new step forward for the sarcastic Baumbach. It’s just delightful stuff, a film that I am happy to continue to recommend to everyone (even people who might like Free Birds, too).

Frances Ha is getting the Criterion Collection treatment this week, with a special dual format package (that’s Blu-ray and DVD, folks) that includes such director-approved extras as a new conversation between filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and Baumbach, a new conversation between actor and filmmaker Sarah Polley and Gerwig, and an essay by playwright Annie Baker. It’s one of the first must-buy sets I’ve encountered yet this season, and I can’t wait to lovingly place it next to my Kicking and Screaming Criterion Collection set.

You can buy the Frances Ha Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD right here.