Frances Ha is endearing, kind and, in many ways, Noah Baumbach’s best movie to date. One could trace his films, from his debut (Kicking and Screaming) to his most recent (Greenberg) and see a slow but steady focus on the individual, as well as his abandonment of an ironic, sometimes caustic stance against the very characters he writes. It is as if Baumbach could only write a certain type of person—the privileged, socially crippled intellectual with either too much self-awareness or none at all—and for a while it seemed like even the writer himself couldn’t stand to be in the same room with such characters. This anger has faded, and what has emerged over his last few films, and culminated in Frances Ha, is an embrace of not only the flaws of his characters, but also his flaws as a filmmaker. He has settled down and created a film imbued with love, fun and melancholy. It feels simple and open, and is a joy to watch.
The small victories and defeats of the titular character, played honestly and without judgement by Greta Gerwig, skim by in a series of micro-scenes that sometimes only include a single action plucked from her daily life: a swipe of a plastic grocery bag or the surcharge at an ATM. In her heart, Frances is a dancer. In reality, she is barely an understudy. This dichotomy defines her character, and the film grows beautifully out of it. Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and Frances are deeply connected friends, but they are drifting. Sophie meets a potential husband while Frances moves in with a mutual friend, Lev (Adam Driver). “Move in” is actually too strong a term—she’s paying discounted rent to live on the couch before she goes on tour (maybe) with her dance company. Frances and Sophie’s divide only widens from there.
Sam Levy’s simple, often still compositions and black-and-white cinematography lend Frances an Old Hollywood vibe that makes her grand in the eyes of both the filmmakers and the audience. The result is respect. It feels like the filmmakers know intimately what Frances is going through, but don’t want to comment on it for fear of hurting her feelings. The comedy of her life is enough, better not to make fun. Baumbach has long fancied himself the kin of the French New Wave, and their presence is felt throughout Frances Ha. More exciting, though, is that the film evokes as much of the hyper-modernity of a film like Spring Breakers as it does the more classical films of the 1960s and ’70s. Jennifer Lame’s jumpy, sweet editing meshes well with Gerwig and Baumbach’s script, and one gets the sense of skimming the YouTube video of Frances’s life. Here she falls. Here she dances. Here she fights. Here she gets back up. Then it’s over, as quickly as it started.
Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner
Release Date: May 17 (limited)