Title: Frances Ha
Year: 2012
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Play time: 
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriters: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver

Screened at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival.

Having gotten accustomed to the experience of Noah Baumbach’s films as akin to getting doused in acid while a New Yorker shouts at me, I was totally unprepared for Frances Ha, the affectionate and resonant study of arrested development he co-wrote with star Greta Gerwig and shot in lovely black-and-white. Where his previous films channeled the anger and frustration of its protagonists, this one captures the sense — uncomfortably familiar, to tell the truth — of being moored to the dock while life merrily floats by. If the notion of a kinder, gentler Baumbach repels you, fair warning; but if you’ve longed to see him work in a different, less acerbic mode, welcome to one of the best films of the year.

He has not ditched many of his trademark quirks. The rampant casual insensitivity, for example, is present and accounted for: one of the opening scenes shows Frances fighting with her boyfriend, who’s miffed because she won’t leave her roommate and best friend Sophie to move in with him; the phone signals a call from Sophie, which Frances answers with a hilariously ecstatic “Hey girl, what’s up!” and concludes with a litany of “I love you! I love you! I love you!” But Gerwig is such an unassuming, instantly likable presence that her obliviousness is stripped of its nasty edge. There’s something deeper and more interesting than meanness at the root of her dysfunction (unlike, say, Roger Greenberg’s).

The film traces Frances’ attempts to find purpose and companionship while poor, single, and largely jobless in New York City. She wants to be a dancer, and apprentices for a small dance company, but can’t see that she lacks the drive and the talent to really succeed. Her relationships are one-sided and a little twisted: she obsesses over her friendship with Sophie with an intensity Sophie clearly doesn’t reciprocate; she goes out with a hipster lothario named Lev (Adam Driver) and instead of dating him ends up moving in (platonically) with him and his roommate Benji (Michael Zegen). Benji is a missed opportunity: the only person with whom Frances makes any sort of real connection, but she doesn’t see it even when it’s practically flashing and blaring in front of her face. The scenes between the two of them are beautifully handled — achingly poignant without remotely playing that way on the surface.

Much of the dialogue is heightened and stylized to hilarious effect – Gerwig’s offbeat sense of humor, combining endearing self-consciousness with unexpected honesty, is fully in evidence – but Baumbach pays more attention to the flow of interactions between its characters than most filmmakers striving for realism. Movies tend to like big scenes where Things definitively Happen; Frances Ha knows that most of our interactions are uncertain and inconclusive. What we think is surely a break-up scene turns out not to be nearly so clear-cut; a callous attempt by Frances’ roommates to basically kick her out of the apartment backfires because they can’t quite manage to get their point across. The movie has the rhythms of real life.

Frances Ha is not a coming-of-age story, because it’s not naïve enough to think that a “coming of age” can be distilled into a single moment, or even a concrete progression of events. It’s instead a film about youth –when everything’s in flux and you feel lost and can’t quite see the forest for the trees. It’s deeply moving, and the best work of Noah Baumbach’s career.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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