After Frances Ha premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, every conversation I had with a friend who saw it there went something like this: "It's about a young woman making her way through upper class New York City, and I know it sounds terrible, but I promise it's good." After a decade of Sex and the City and then Girls, plus a whole slew of self-indulgent indies about young white people struggling in their 20s, it's hard to make a compelling argument for another addition to the genre-- you can imagine Frances Ha screening to audiences that are already, preemptively rolling their eyes.
And then they meet Frances, a character fully realized in her weirdness and selfishness and shamelessness by Greta Gerwig, and the film itself, co-written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, which is as sharp and meticulous as anything Baumbach has ever made, but infinitely more optimistic and generous too. Frances, an aspiring dancer stuck as an understudy at her dance company at the relatively ripe age of 27, is stalled en route to growing up, not unlike the characters of Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming or the titular Greenberg. You can tell Frances is frustrating to be around, spinning out nonsensical anecdotes at dinner parties, insisting on paying for dinners she can't actually afford, and leaning heavily on her best friend and former roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) even when Sophie's moved on. Frances could be a nightmare in another movie, even one of Baumbach's earlier films, but Frances Ha is suffused with her inner spirit-- optimistic, self-effacing, smarter than she lets on, and eventually willing to do the growing and changing she's avoided.
Shot on black and white video, Frances Ha deliberately evokes both the New York of Woody Allen's Manhattan and the tech-savvy world of today, where three-bedroom apartments in Chinatown cost $4000 a month and a brief flash of cell service is a break from subway boredom. The film started between Gerwig and Baumbach as a character study, and the plot is loose as can be before straining itself a bit to wrap things up. After Sophie movies out, to an apartment in Tribeca Frances can't afford, Frances winds up crashing in the living room of that $4000 Chinatown loft with two guys (Girls' Adam Driver and Michael Zegen). Just when you think she might spark a romance with one of them, she flits away again to Christmas back in Sacramento with her parents, then an impulsive weekend trip to Paris, then a summer in a humiliating job as an RA at a dance camp held at her old college. Frances shuffles along, makes some big mistakes and some small ones, pines after Sophie, and eventually makes her way toward a life that's not perfect, but a step in the right direction.
It's not easy to convince an audience to meander alongside a character for 90 minutes, but between the script's crackling and dead-on dialogue and Gerwig's mesmerizing, lighter-than-air performance, Frances and Frances Ha are ideal wandering companions. Structured effectively as a movie about a romance-- Sophie and Frances's daytime lunches are set to florid violin music-- and then its end, Frances Ha is weirdly similar to Gerwig's own Lola Versus, which is a fascinating side-by-side example of how poorly a similar film can go when in the wrong hands. Every story deserves telling when it's done with humor and grace and warmth. Frances Ha takes the coming-of-age story you thought you couldn't bear to see one more time and, maybe a little miraculously, makes it new again.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich