Directed by Noah Baumbach
Opens at the Charles May 31
Greta Gerwig isn't "good" at acting in the way that indie-rock bands often aren't "good" at their instruments-a certain lack of grace affords her performances a sloppy, realistic charm. She is always herself: Consider the way she munches on a slice of pizza as the wastoid friend in Ti West's House of the Devil; notice how she ends up as the only interesting aspect of Hollywood-whatever fests like Arthur and No Strings Attached because she doesn't act any differently than she did in her career-starting work with mumblecore auteur Joe Swanberg; observe the wizened desperation she exudes in director Noah Baumbach's Greenberg.
Frances Ha, co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig (the two are dating; if Film Comment-caliber gossip is your game, now you know) is an ode to Gerwig's mix of rarefied appeal and good and proper movie-actress charisma. It tells the story of 27-year-old Frances slowly figuring her life out in Brooklyn, with kind-of-a-job as a dancer, while parsing her knotty relationship with best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, who expertly exudes a no-nonsense togetherness and fragility).
The first scene both establishes Frances' wry personality and teases the tensions developing between her and Sophie: Frances' boyfriend Dan (Michael Esper) buys her cats and asks her to move in. Frances, who doesn't want to break her lease with Sophie, asks him if she can pay him to take the cats away-and then breaks up with him. Not long after, Sophie excitedly moves in with her successful but blank boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger). Frances can't help but be quietly bitter at Sophie: for moving out, and also for dating such a basic dude. Later on, Patch and Sophie relocate to Japan for Patch's high-profile job. In contrast, Frances takes an impulsive trip to France and sticks it on a credit card. The build up of scenes like this subtly illustrate how tough it can be for friends to stay friends when they are at operating at different maturity levels.
The Frances-and-Sophie thread runs through what is essentially 80-something minutes of often funny, sometimes poignant, usually embarrassing moments. Recurring jokes find Frances enduring a series of hilariously cruel insults from acquaintances too caught up in themselves-and presumably raised by parents who encouraged them to always speak their minds-to even realize they're being rude. A friend of a friend calls her "a lot older [than everyone else in the room] but less grown-up." Her strut is described as a "weird man walk." These all sting, because they are so clearly tied to reality: Gerwig is 29, and she does have a fascinating physicality that some Williamsburg jerk might compare to a dude's.
Baumbach infuses this mumblecore riff with some panache, thanks to crisp black-and-white digital photography. He isn't content to couch the drama in half-assed camerawork and aimless "realistic" dialogue. There are plenty of zingers and clever lines ("But your blog looked so happy!" Frances tells Sophie after a breakup). And that's vital now, for Woody Allen won't be around forever, and Whit Stillman remains the Malick of upper-class hipster twits, knocking out movies with increasing irregularity. We need more terse, witty movies like this.
Thanks to Gerwig's involvement, Frances Ha feels like an auto-critique, while Baumbach, age 43, provides dad-like sympathy for these drifting millennials. When Frances calls a prospective date and says, "I got a tax rebate, want to go to dinner?" it seems like the unwise but understandable thing to do with a cash infusion. On the date, she can't pay because the restaurant doesn't take debit. "I'm so embarrassed," Frances admits, " I'm not a real person yet." A statement on an entire generation could hinge on that line, but more simply, it exhibits Frances' self-awareness.
Baumbach's sympathies are manifest in two pointed homages. A plot tangent in which Frances moves in with two slumming trust-fund bros (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) teases a François Truffaut's Jules & Jim plot that never arrives. Frances doesn't sleep with either of them (as opposed to both of them) and soon gets tired of their bohemian-doofus lifestyle. In another scene, she runs down the street doing spastic dance moves set to David Bowie's "Modern Love" in a nod to Leos Carax's Mauvais Sang, only here, the burst of dancing is less sustained and far more awkward. The intent, it seems, is to embrace these character flaws.
That still means Frances Ha is the kind of movie where understanding references to French cinema helps a whole bunch, and that's obnoxious. Given the twice-over echo chamber critique-and-defense loop that Lena Dunham's Girls-a similar endeavor-undergoes, it seems useless to hold its milieu against it. But let's just say that this is not the kind of movie you should go see if the idea of watching white hipsters with hyper-minor problems sticks in your craw.
But Frances Ha also happens to be, thus far, the least cynical movie from Baumbach, whose past work has often been hindered by the simple-minded belief that everybody is selfish and cold-hearted. At the core of Frances Ha is the shifting but stable friendship between Frances and Sophie. They hurt each other here and there, but without going for the jugular every chance they get. And that's a reason to give in to these bougie Brooklyn values, if only for 80 minutes.