by Tony Dayoub
You'd have to dig through Noah Baumbach's filmography, all the way back to Highball (pseudonymously credited to Ernie Fusco) in order to find as fluffy a trifle as Frances Ha. Not that there's anything wrong with that. At first glance, a slight, delicate character piece that is equal parts Brooklyn mumblecore, love poem and ode to New York, Frances Ha revolves around the not untalented Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). Not entirely by coincidence, Gerwig is also Baumbach's current main squeeze. The way Sam Levy's black-and-white cinematography showcases not just Gerwig but New York City recalls Woody Allen's Manhattan. And for a while I worried whether this was a sort of tribute to the latest incarnation of the "manic pixie girl" character actress that many younger film lovers, and at least some notable directors, often become infatuated with. The way Baumbach approaches Frances Ha, though, makes it much more than that.
Gerwig may be the most ideal of muses in that there is a substance and lack of ego to her, qualities rarely found in your typical sexy ingenue. These take shape in Frances, a twenty-something dreamer who aimlessly flitters through life. She works for a dance company that doesn't think she cuts it as a dancer. She shares an apartment with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), about as close a girlfriend one could have in a platonic relationship (a perfectly rendered type of friendship not often seen on screen). In other words, despite a lack of money to finance her artist-colony-lifestyle aspirations, life has yet to give Frances the kick in the pants necessary to force her to grow up.
In this sense, Frances Ha tackles a subject rarely seen in movies, one that puts it fully in line with Baumbach's last film, the more melancholy Greenberg. Greenberg explored the situation of a man-child stuck in a rut, and Frances Ha turns toward a childish woman also unable to get over the last hump of maturity. It's a matter rendered academic after Frances' dance company lays her off and Sophie gets engaged. Casting a fresh face like Sumner (daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler) as Sophie is a boon for the film, because it is only by giving the charismatic Gerwig someone with an equally magnetic personality that we can fully comprehend why the promising Frances has been mired in stagnation for any appreciable amount of time.
Though I won't reveal the actual significance of the movie's title, which is revealed in the film's final frame, Frances Ha could just as well be the sound of some all-knowing greater power laughing at Frances' plans just before they're derailed. Frances is a woman just beginning to come to terms with the fact that it is highly unlikely she will always have the same friends in her life, live in the same place or achieve exactly the career she has always dreamt of. As ephemeral a concept as that may be to base an entire movie on, even a comedy like this one, Frances Ha succeeds simply on the basis of it being the first film to capture that kind of coming of age with a woman as its focus.
Frances Ha is playing at the 50th New York Film Festival at 6:30 pm tonight and 9 pm Thursday, October 4th at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023; and at 4 pm Wednesday, October 10th at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center's Francesca Beale Theater, 144 West 65th St (south side between Broadway and Amsterdam), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500.