Frances Ha (2012) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA rated: R for sexual references and language
Running time: 86 min.
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Charlotte d'Amboise, Grace Gummer
Cameo: Josh Hamilton
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Review published June 19, 2013
Frances Ha gets its title from the truncated version of the titular character's last name, which may be fitting, given that Frances herself may not be a completely realized person. And, she's not one to take life particularly seriously, though, she soon finds out, that can have serious drawbacks.
Your opinion of Frances Ha may be directly related to your admiration for the quirky, comedic style of its star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig (To Rome with Love, Damsels in Distress), who gets to be in 'full quirk' mode throughout this independent comedy directed and co-written by boyfriend Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Mr. Jealousy). It's perhaps the lightest of Baumbach's films, comparable to the tone and subject matter of the Lena Dunham HBO series, "Girls" (which also contains Adam Driver (Lincoln, J. Edgar) in the cast), primarily due to the Gerwig influence, and may meet with mixed feelings among those used to his more cynically incisive explorations.
We meet Frances at the age of 27 in Brooklyn, New York, a rather aimless young woman, aspiring to be a dancer but without the true focus and determination necessary. She's not one to ever change unless she absolutely needs to, and the rug is pulled out from her snug life with best friend and apartment mate Sophie (Sumner, CBGB), who ends up moving out to live with her boyfriend, and that's just after Frances turns down her (now-ex) boyfriend's invitation to cohabitate because she didn't want to leave her BFF. Being "poor", and with the lease running out, Frances attempts to find a new permanent place to live with others, though her uncouth personality doesn't quite seem to mesh well with anyone but Sophie. In addition to most of her friends finding her someone they are unable to live with for long, she also has the tag of being mostly un-hirable as a dancer, and un-dateable in her love life. In short, she's a bit immature, clinging to her youth in a world that expects her to grow up, and with others thinking she looks older than she is, their patience with her youthful shenanigans grows thin.
Baumbach films this offbeat slice-of-life comedy with a mix of Whit Stillman, Woody Allen (especially Manhattan) and Francois Truffaut, though without the quality writing or underlying deep themes of the latter two. The music is lifted from older films, composed by Georges Delerue -- a well-known Truffaut collaborator, it should be noted. Not surprising for Baumbach to be a lover of French cinema like that of Truffaut; he named his son Rohmer, after Eric Rohmer, one of the New Wave's best. As the character of Frances is thoughtful and energetic, yet aimless and self-indulgent, so is the pacing of this movie. There are a collection of interesting little moments, but momentum is never sustained, so the result is less than satisfying outside of the performance by Gerwig.
The black-and-white photography is perhaps the one true genuinely interesting thing about the look of the film, though the digital camerawork, especially as shot inside actual restaurants and apartments, reveals a murky, unappealing texture. Sometimes there is some interesting camera movement, such as a tracking shot of Frances running down a busy street, hearkening back to Woody Allen doing the same in the aforementioned Manhattan. Interestingly, this scene is identical to one in the obscure film called Kiltro, which features a nearly identical tracking shot of the main character running down a street while David Bowie's "Modern Love" plays out on the soundtrack. With so much cribbing in the film by Baumbach, from its score, its style, and its camera angles, how much credit should we reasonably give to his filmmaking prowess?
Some might view Frances Ha as the work of a director who seeks to please the woman he loves by filming the script they worked on together and casting her in the lead role. Baumbach has a track record of this; he directed Greenberg, which had co-starred Gerwig, and was co-written by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was his wife at the time. Perhaps it is, which might explain the uncharacteristic way that Baumbach sidesteps seriousness in order to showcase Gerwig acting adorably silly.
As it is a B&W indie film, it's like catnip for critics, but I'd feel negligent to recommend Frances Ha to most people, as I think it may likely only please art-house film buffs and other artsy types, who've often experienced a desultory period of abstraction at some point in their lives, and who probably also like the aesthetic appeal of Baumbach's lensing and music choices, as well as like the indie pedigree and (I'll charitably say) homage to great filmmakers of old.
Though Gerwig's performance is lively, the story could have used more shape to make something profound out of this collection of mostly disjointed scenes. Perhaps if you find life as aimless and abstract, you might relate. For most others, it feels like a series of narrative non sequiturs that don't quite coalesce into much that is as pithy or profound as the films Baumbach tries to emulate.
©2013 Vince Leo