I didn’t think I would be recommending Frances Ha, but I am.
From the outset this sounded as though it had the potential to be one of the flimsiest if not plain irritating films of the year. A large part of this has to do with my own scepticism regarding director Noah Baumbach. Whilst depressed-Ben Stiller vehicle Greenberg proved to be a pleasant surprise, more often I associate Baumbach with stiflingly arch indie cinema. The kind overstuffed with white bourgeois Americans exchanging overly rehearsed witticisms in pathetic attempts to one up each other. Such are the lasting memories of The Squid And The Whale, a film which, you may have worked out, I found utterly insufferable. I associate Baumbach with cloying, make-cute middle-class flippancy.
Frances Ha sounded as though it would offer more of this, and in spades. It focuses on the titular Frances, a 27-year-old dancer in New York whose career is floundering and who struggles to maintain a permanent residence. So the film follows her from apartment to apartment, stringing together a meagre existence, hanging out with artists and dilettantes, taking a terrible weekend trip to Paris that she can’t possibly afford and failing to maintain a friendship with her college bestie Sophie (Mickey Sumner) as their lives take different directions.
Oh, and it’s all filmed in monochrome.
Honestly, there’s only so many first-world problems you can stomach. The prospect of a whiny 90 minute homage to Woody Allen had my expectations running low. Frances Ha sounded like hipster melodrama, the kind of thing that thinks it’s a lot more charming than it is. Like most hipsters.
Fortunately this isn’t quite the case. I say not quite because there is a bit of that here. There just is. You can’t put Baumbach in charge of a project like this and escape it entirely. Crucially however, Frances Ha is one of the year’s nicest surprises, chiefly thanks to a knockout performance from Greta Gerwig.
Gerwig has been bubbling around for a few years now, making notable guest spots in films such as The House Of The Devil. A phenomenally gifted comic actress, Gerwig co-wrote Frances Ha with Baumbach, and as such this is very much her vehicle. Frances is her second skin, and it pays dividends. She is the focus of every scene in the movie, and she carries it expertly. It ought to open her up to far more lead roles, and I’d now follow her anywhere. You’ll see few lead performances this year as openly human and wryly funny. Frances is the kind of woman you wish was your best friend, if not more.
Which is not to say she’s an idealised character. She has her faults, tending to turn into something of a monster after a couple too many vodkas, and prone to manipulating situations to her advantage.
Following Frances through a particularly messy year of her life is an easy ask. Gerwig makes her vivacious and extroverted, whilst still prone to insecurities, particularly how she is perceived by her peers. Frances suffers a very familiar suspicion that the rest of the world has gotten its shit together whilst she’s still trying to figure out what being an adult is. Afraid that the world is leaving her behind, but at the same time reproachful of having to get serious and catch-up, she drifts, makes bad choices, refuses helping hands out of wounded pride.
It’s all very relatable, and as such Frances is easy to grow attached to. With this emotional connection to the movie established early, Frances Ha manages to unfurl at an enjoyably brisk place, divided up by intertitles whenever she switches zip codes. Indeed Baumbach’s film feels impatient, whipping along giddily as Frances (sometimes literally) dances her way around New York.
There’s an unflappable positivity about Gerwig here which saves Frances Ha from descending into woe-is-me indulgence. And whilst you may occasionally want to stage an intervention within the film, this at least shows that you’re invested. You want this character to get what she wants, even when she is making an ass of herself.
It’s not a one-woman show. Mickey Sumner makes Sophie a convincing foil for Frances, and the time she shares on screen with Gerwig shines with a believable best-friend chemistry. Michael Zegan’s Benji is an equally fine replacement when Frances and Sophie’s lives veer away from one another, whilst Adam Driver and Grace Gummer also standout in smaller, less flattering roles. Overall, Gerwig is ably supported.
At 86 minutes, Frances Ha is short-but-sweet. Despite the quick pace and light touch, some parts of this slim running time feel a tiny bit bloated, but Frances’ shabby-chic transience means that no one section completely overstays its welcome. The rolling narrative never feels as though it actually comes off of the wheels. Baumbach directs with confidence and occasional flare, tipping his hat to the likes of the aforementioned Woody Allen or Jean-Luc Godard, but never at the expense of the movie. Wisely, he instead allows Gerwig to steal the film.
All of which makes this little New York love letter really rather wonderful. Yes, it exists within that sphere of ‘quirky’ American films which revel in their own brainy beauty. But it avoids appearing smug, self-righteous or irksome. And when it does occasionally veer toward something mawkish or twee, it quickly course-corrects before lasting damage can be done. I’m pleased to say I was won over almost immediately, and it’s worth repeating that a lot of that is down to Gerwig, who deserves any and all recognition for such an exceptionally realised leading turn. I didn’t think I would be recommending Frances Ha, but I am. Engaging, funny, and well-worth your time. I actually loved it.