FRANCES HA (R) They are madly in love. The “they” being director/co-writer Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg) and the star/co-writer of Frances Ha, the goofy yet oddly magnetic Greta Gerwig. The two first worked together on Greenberg and became a couple after the movie was finished and Baumbach’s marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh was kaput. Normally, this sort of trivia would be irrelevant, but Frances Ha is an open love letter of sorts to his new muse, and the result is splendidly joyous. This is François Truffaut by way of Woody Allen, laced with plenty of mumblecore lo-fi spontaneity. In short, it’s excellent.
Baumbach’s body of work, which includes the tender yet quietly devastating The Squid and the Whale (one of the best movies about divorce), has deftly charted the lives of intelligent though emotionally crippled adults. His work has a light touch, but his insight into his characters and their foibles is honed to a sometimes brutal, uncomfortable degree of honesty. His movies are grounded in the familiar and graced with a bruised humanity, but the humor underlying the drama frequently punctures the warmth with an acidic self-hatred that stings long after the picture is over. His latest movie, about a young woman bopping around in her post-collegiate life looking for some kind of meaning, is his lightest, yet warmly funny, picture yet.
Frances Ha has the energy and flighty insouciance of a romantic comedy, though embedded in its story of 27-year-old dancer Frances (Gerwig), as she bounces along in her undirected life, is a gravity of weighted truth. Movies have long traded on the idea of the carefree female spirit, most recently (nauseatingly symbolized) as the so-called “manic pixie dream girl” that actresses such as Kirsten Dunst and Zooey Deschanel have made their stock in trade. Gerwig, an actress who can project vulnerability, gawky physicality and kinetic intelligence within a few seconds of screen time, doesn’t really fit that definition here. The construct of the MPDG is purely a male wish-fulfillment fantasy (albeit of a more nerdy, cerebral sort), and though on the surface Frances does adhere to the definition to a large degree due to her impulsiveness, charming inarticulateness and supposed inscrutability, Frances is tellingly removed from other “quirky” versions of this type, because she is not viewed through a male lens. Frances is significantly her own person, and her deviation from other characterizations of this ilk helps elevate the movie to a richer level.
Ultimately, Frances Ha (the origin of the name beautifully, visually articulated in the last scene) is too quick on its feet to mire itself in weighty pronouncements. It is, delightfully so, a romance. But it’s a love story about the fade-out of a female friendship, bullied by the necessities and burdens of change. Mickey Summer, who plays Frances’ more career-directed pal Sophie, is fantastic and really energizes every minute of screen time she gets. Adam Driver (who starred on “Girls”) and Michael Zegen are also good as two of Frances’ male friends.
Frances Ha belongs to Gerwig, however, and her modest actor talents are put on brilliant display here. Baumbach is clearly smitten with his star, but it’s Gerwig’s own increasing confidence in her acting and writing that really makes the critical difference. We fall in love with Frances because we’re confronting the story of us. It’s funny and touching because it’s true, regardless of gender.
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