Frances Ha is the latest example of independent cinema’s ongoing obsession with aimless twentysomethings trying to figure out what to do with themselves. That it stands out as one of the very best in this sub-genre is a testament to the talents of director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig, who have taken the mumblecore formula and turned it into a smart, insightful and beautiful dramedy.
Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach, stars as the eponymous Frances, a 27-year-old Brooklynite who shares an apartment with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Frances still lives like an adolescent, content to spend her days playfighting in the park and skipping through the streets, before settling in to bed next to Sophie to discuss an imaginary future where Frances is a famous dancer and Sophie is a powerful publisher.
However, that future is a little more real for Sophie than it is for Frances. Her job is taking off and her relationship with her boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger) is getting more serious. When an apartment opens up in Tribeca, Sophie takes it and leaves Frances, destroying her tidy little Bohemian lifestyle and forcing her out into the world.
Frances winds up in a cozy little apartment with serial womanizer Lev (Adam Driver) and aspiring writer Benji (Michael Zegan), two trust-fund kids who can afford a fancy apartment without really doing anything.
When that falls apart due to Frances’ lack of income, she stumbles around from place to place, visiting her parents in Sacramento, living with a fellow dancer (Grace Gummer) and even spending a weekend in Paris, all the while drifting further away from Sophie.
It doesn’t sound like anything more than your average shoe-gazing, self-absorbed indie picture but in Baumbach’s hands, Frances Ha plays like a Woody Allen film for the Girls generation. There’s no rough, handheld camerawork here, no mumbled or improvised dialogue. Instead, it’s all artfully shot in beautiful black and white with a sharp and funny script that still feels natural.
The character of Frances could have been a real disaster, a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl with quirk and frivolity substituting for actual personality. But Gerwig ably treads the fine line between loveable and annoying and all of Frances’ quirks feel real and believable. She’s beguiling enough that we really root for her to channel her effervescence into something constructive and get her life together.
Baumbach has become known for his cynical and acerbic screenplays like The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg – which featured Gerwig as the only positive in an otherwise unbearable film – but he has sidelined that snarky edge for a warmer and more poignant film that perfectly captures the angst of impending adulthood.
With Frances Ha, Baumbach and Gerwig have enlivened a familiar story with charm, truth and an endlessly endearing lead character.