Indie-film stalwart Greta Gerwig gets her fullest showcase as the title character in Frances Ha, a quick-stepping, black-and-white entry-to-adulthood comedy. Flipping the script on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal, the awkwardly effervescent Gerwig may well be a muse for filmmaker/boyfriend Noah Baumbach (he directs, she stars, they co-wrote), whose own films (Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding, The Squid & the Whale) have lacked the spark and tenderness Gerwig inspires and provides. But her awkward character — deemed "undatable" by one male friend — is too busy with her own problems to rejuvenate any lost male soul on screen.
The film is set primarily in New York City, but quick trips to Sacramento, Paris, and Poughkeepsie, along with Frances' own increasingly nomadic existence, give the film a bit of a road-movie vibe. Frances — "Ha" is not her last name, but the title is explained with a final grace-note flourish — is 27, five years into "postcollegiate" life and trending from "aspiring" to "failed" in ways she hasn't quite accepted. A gangly creature who seems always on the verge of some kind of physical or verbal pratfall, she's barely employed as an apprentice with a small dance company and has an unrequited love for the hard city that both feeds and crushes dreams.
More stable, or so she believes, is her close relationship with college pal and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), whose relationship is likened to "the lesbian couple that no longer has sex." This is dorm life, extended. But adulthood beckons, and Frances is less prepared for it than most of her compatriots. When Sophie moves to a Tribeca apartment share Frances can't afford, the small moment is mammoth for Frances, bumping her from a comfortable if downbeat stasis into a more precarious place.
Filmed in black-and-white (on digital video, and I did yearn for real film at times) and following educated white people around Manhattan and Brooklyn, Frances Ha comes on like Woody Allen — particularly Manhattan — but the secret to why it's so good is that it might be closer to Albert Brooks' comedy of embarrassment. Allen and Brooks (Lost in America, Modern Romance) were East Coast/West Coast doppelgangers in the '80s, starring in, writing, and directing comedies that were similar on the surface despite the continent that divided them.
In Allen's films, the characters he played were neurotic, but despite his ostensibly self-effacing tics, the Allen figure really was supposed to be smarter and funnier and more cultured than anyone else on screen. With Brooks, the protagonists he played were self-involved but the filmmaking was not. This made the social critique sharper, the comedy deeper, and the pain much more real. And so it is with Frances Ha, which is, at times, a deeply painful comedy that taps into many truths about a certain strand of contemporary young adulthood ("You know I'm actually poor, right?" Frances asks of two parent-subsidized roommates) without idealizing its flawed protagonist.
The black-and-white helps, but Frances Ha suggests French new wave more than Gerwig-identified mumblecore in other ways. Frances and Sophie lolling around their flat evokes Rivette's Celine & Julie Go Boating. Frances refers to her brief respite as a boarder with two male friends in sitcom terms, but it feels more like Truffaut's Jules and Jim in contemporary miniature. And Gerwig's exuberant jaunt across Manhattan streets, captured in a tracking shot, to the tune of David Bowie's "Modern Love," suggests the museum race from Godard's Band of Outsiders. Like those films, and perhaps unlike the mumblecore stuff Gerwig graduated from, Frances Ha feels at once intensely contemporary and timeless.
Opening Friday, June 7th