Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Independent writer-director Noah Baumbach is usually not one for conventional or even entirely-pleasant elements when it comes to his stories—his films “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding,” and “Greenberg” are certainly proof of that. Somehow, he manages to take what sounds like a simple story (parents get a divorce, squabbling sisters reunite at a wedding, etc.) and make it his own. Sometimes, you don’t know how to feel, and the laughs come from certain originality that comes with an odd sense to it, I called his “Margot at the Wedding” an “acquired-taste” film in that you either get into the appeal (or lack thereof) of the material and execution, or you don’t.
With “Frances Ha,” Baumbach has learned to relax with his filmmaking and the film, as a result, is gentler and fairly easier to watch that his previous films. The tone is a bit lighter, but with that same sense of gritty documentary-style camerawork and interaction so you know that it’s still a Baumbach film (except that this one is presented in black-and-white for some reason). And it actually has a charming leading character instead of the usual intentionally unlikable “protagonists” we usually find in his films (see Margot, for example). That character is the excitable, quirky Frances Halloway, played the ever-charming Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the screenplay for the film with Baumbach.
Gerwig is generally known as a “mumblecore queen,” but she has gained notice in more mainstream projects (and hopefully will continue to do so, if she wants people to forget she was in the “Arthur” remake). And playing the lead role in “Frances Ha,” she follows a trend I notice a lot recently in indie films—that trend being that actors/actresses write their own leading roles and they wind up showcasing their true talent that was evident but not fully realized in supporting roles they were saddled with previously. That was the case with Zoe Kazan in writing and acting in “Ruby Sparks” and Rashida Jones co-writing and acting in “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” Now, Greta Gerwig co-writes “Frances Ha” with Baumbach and delivers her best performance as an actress, showing further cases of immense appeal and range. Her Frances “Ha” Halloway is a cheerful, high-spirited 27-year-old dancer who has a bit of trouble growing up and can’t seem to deal with the real world of adulthood. She gets excited over the simplest things, such as taking the check on a restaurant date…but having to run all over the city to get money because her credit card is maxed out. (That was the moment early in the film when I realized I loved this woman.) As things get deeper into impending adulthood, she finds she can’t quite deal with it regularly and does/says things out of the ordinary that make her seem…well, “crazy.” But you love her anyway.
So what’s the “simple” story that Baumbach has to put original touches into for this one, and for this character to go through? Frances is a dancing-company apprentice who works in New York and wants to be a real dancer. So she tries to fulfill her dream, even though the road to that fulfillment is a bumpy one. Blah blah blah, right? Wrong. Frances is among thousands in a big city that is seeking an artistic life, but doesn’t have the financial consistencies or the attention or time for her own life to reach her goals. Meanwhile, her best friend from college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), with whom she does everything together (they even at one point acknowledge themselves as a “lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex”), suddenly moves out of their apartment to a new place in Tribeca. Frances can’t quite pay the rent (nor does she believe she can live alone), so she moves in with two rich, likable schmucks, Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), at their apartment. They’re not the only new ones to come into her life, though, as she meets other interesting people who come into her life and then abruptly leave her life. Even when Sophie returns into Frances’ life, she brings the news that she’s moving to Tokyo with her new fiancé, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), whom the two used to mock before.
Can Frances continue through life with each new change coming her way? Maybe so, but it’s kind of a rough movement. This is not the kind of life she and Sophie used to imagine themselves living in the future. And as the future appears to be the present, it’s harder for even them to understand. Reality takes its course, and maybe there’s hope for them, but it’s a long way down the road.
I’ll be honest—I don’t see the purpose of “Frances Ha” being presented in black-and-white. It’s not set in a past time, and somehow, seeing a MacBook and an iPhone in a black-and-white movie has an odd effect on me…and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Is “Frances Ha” supposed to come off as a new version of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan?”
Huh. Actually, given the tone and structure of this film, that would actually make sense.
The screenplay for “Frances Ha” is quite appealing. The conversations these people have are worthy of “Seinfeld,” as well as Woody Allen, in that the littlest things lead to some interesting conversations. And there are certain oddities in phrases and terms, such as a lame text that is supposed to be a come-on (and it becomes Frances’ playful greeting to Sophie when they meet again) and the description that Benji constantly uses for Frances when she describes the direction her life is going—“undateable.”
Not a lot happens in “Frances Ha.” It’s more of a series of events surrounding this woman—some brief in a montage, others stretched out to get the point. But its emotional aspects, as well as its stellar central character, really make “Frances Ha” a memorable experience. It’s small, but it works very well.