Frances Ha (2013)
86 min., rated R.
"Frances Ha" is what would logically happen to Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath of the HBO series "Girls" in her looming years as a drifting twenty-something gal in New York City. Restless youth is such a familiar theme that it almost seems like a clichéd log line, but writer-director Noah Baumbach worked on the script with his muse, writer-actress Greta Gerwig, who co-starred in his last film, 2010's "Greenberg," so you know it's something special. Divergent from the bitter, lacerating tones of the filmmaker's repertoire (2005's "The Squid and the Whale," 2007's "Margot at the Wedding," and even "Greenberg") but never losing the acute observations and delicate pirouette of quirk and humanity, "Frances Ha" is still bittersweet but a more cheerfully inviting and compassionate film.
College-educated 27-year-old Frances Halliday (Gerwig) doesn't realize it yet, but her life is in a state of flux. Inseparable with best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and sharing a Brooklyn apartment "like an old lesbian couple that doesn't have sex," she turns down her boyfriend's invitation to move in with him, and thus, gets dumped, just so Frances can resign their sublet with Sophie. But then Frances gets thrown for a loop: Sophie is moving to TriBeCa with her preppy boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger). Working as an apprentice at a dance company, Frances hopes she can move up in her status and afford her life since she's "not a real person yet." That's when she starts couch-hopping from apartment to apartment with her trustafarian artist pals (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) and goes on missing Sophie. When will Frances get her shot at life?
A true labor of love from Baumbach and Gerwig, "Frances Ha" is a disarming pleasure, due in no small part to the writing of the character and the performance of the actress playing her. Filled with so much naturalistic but hilariously stylized dialogue, the tight script finds ways of not letting the protagonist off the hook but making her instantly likable as well. While Baumbach has given us many off-putting, solipsistic protagonists in the past, he (and, this time, with Gerwig) gives us a character so offbeat, clumsy, and endearingly goofy but never whiny, clingy or twee. Frances is the kind of girl who will do a head stand mid-conversation in her apartment. She is such a buoyant, open-hearted spirit, even if she's a mess who makes mistakes and needs to get her act together. Adulthood catches up with her sooner than she wants it to, referring to herself as "poor," when one of her friends says that's "an insult to actual poor people." How the viewer feels about Frances will make or break the film, but it's hard not to fall for the adorably incandescent Gerwig every time, and it's refreshing to see a heroine finding herself rather than a man. With Sumner (the daughter of musician Sting) playing Sophie, we're able to take stock in this very close (but platonic) female friendship. Their moments together—"play fighting" in the park and sharing a bed without socks—are lovely to watch.
Digitally shot in luscious black-and-white by cinematographer Sam Levy, "Frances Ha" recalls the French New Wave and Woody Allen, particularly 1979's "Manhattan." Infecting the viewer with a big smile is the joyous use of "Modern Love" (a nod to Leos Carax's "Mauvais Sang," where Denis Lavant ran down the street to the same David Bowie song), and there's a lonely poignancy during Frances' impromptu solo trip to Paris, cued to Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner." With the rhythms of a light breeze, the film feels lived rather than written. It only belies its brief running time because Frances/Greta is so relatable and delightful and you just don't want to stop spending time with her. In the end, "Frances Ha" has an empathy and generosity, ending with a simply wonderful beginning for Frances that makes sense of the film's title and gives her hope.