FRANCES HA (2012, directed by Noah Baumbach, 85 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The comic character studies of writer/director Noah Baumbach are steeped in cynicism and despair, hashing out the dark realities of family, love, and life in general, so it is a surprise that his latest film radiates love from nearly every frame. That love is for the star and co-writer Greta Gerwig and Baumbach’s latest, Frances Ha is a sad sack comic valentine to the off-balance appeal of the daffy Ms. Gerwig. It’s tempting to oversell this poignant little slice of almost nothing but its delicate charm feels like 85 minutes of old-fashioned movie-going Heaven.
Shot in New York in black and white, Frances Ha visually evokes Woody Allen’s lovestruck Manhattan, with its loose narrative recalling early New Wave classics from Truffaut or Agnes Varda (which helps explain the critical gushing.) When we meet Frances she is one of a pair, she and her roommate Sophie (played by Sting’s daughter Mickey Sumner) are so tight that the neighbors compare them to a sexless old lesbian couple. Just after Frances has an undramatic break-up with her boyfriend, Sophie drops the bomb that she is going to move in with her new beau, Patch (Patrick Heusinger.) At first it seems like nothing, but soon it sets Frances on a journey from crash pad to crash pad, from a funky apartment shared with two amorous guys, to her parents in Sacramento (played by Gerwig’s actual parents), back to her old college, and even on an ill-fated, all-for-naught jaunt to Paris. Like her friends, we grow concerned for this rudderless, space case but Frances slowly finds her own place in a chaotic world.
That might describe some of the events of the film but what the film is really about it Gerwig the comic actress and if you can turn yourself over to the big-boned goof’s loopy persona there is a great joy in watching her perform. Frances is a dancer and not a very good one at that, and Gerwig is perfect at showing her break rhythm as she jumps and spins. Gerwig’s line deliveries have a similar bump-and-start rhythm about them, she always seems to come into the conversation with an unexpected thought at an unexpected time. She’s also a bit of a white liar when discussing the reality of her plight, gilding the lily to less-than-convincing effect. In the awkward dinner party scene (with Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500/Luna fame) where Frances befuddles her hosts one can see a connection with the tense comedy of Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, except Gerwig’s adorableness dissolves frustrations as quickly as they are conjured. Gerwig has played variations of this character in a number of indie comedies of the last seven years but she and Baumbach have given her the best showcase yet for her irresistible unselfconscious persona.
Frances also draws comparisons to the protagonist of Baumbach’s last film, Greenberg, its title character played by Ben Stiller. Stiller’s Greenberg was another lost soul, between stable dwellings and unsure of what to do next but such rootlessness is more easily forgivable in a mid-twenties woman than a mid-forties man. Even though neither film nods its head toward the political, there is something particularly contemporary about these career-frozen characters stumbling on the brink of financial disaster. Where Greenberg left the character literally flailing in the wind, Frances Ha ultimately lets its character put stakes down and find her rhythm in the world. Putting your name on your very own mail slot may be a small triumph but in tough times we’ll take what we can get.