In many respects, Frances Ha is a perfectly logical follow-up to Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film, Greenberg. Putting aside observations about the newer film’s sense of hope being gradually thwarted that makes it feel like the cautionary prequel to the earlier effort, there is the simple logistical choice that any alert filmmaker may have made, realizing that Greenberg co-star Greta Gerwig deserved to have an entire film built around her, one specifically designed to play to her gifts. This isn’t simply affection for the actress–although Baumbach certainly has that, having entered into a romantic partnership with her to match the professional one that already existed–but an acknowledgment that she fits perfectly into Baumbach’s cinematic world of offbeat intelligence undercut by wounded self-esteem, of people gradually, sardonically coming to terms with their lack of command in the face of constantly disappointing existence. Better yet, Gerwig typically brings an undercurrent of adaptable hope that adds depth to Baumbach’s cynicism. She benefits from his sorrowful empathy, but I might argue that his art absolutely needs the qualities Gerwig brings, at least on the evidence of Frances Ha.
The film casts Gerwig as Frances, a woman shifting from her mid- to late-twenties, and reluctantly confronting the mounting choices of adulthood that come with the transition. She is pursuing dance as a career but toils in near-anonymity as an alternate in a struggling troupe. There’s similar unsteadiness in her personal life, as her desired solidity with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Summer), is compromised by Sophie drifting inexorably towards the sort of things–marriage, dependable job–that have never figured into the duo’s fanciful aspirations, traded in relaxed, satisfied tones while they curl together in their humble apartment. Frances’s disheartening uncertainty is tailor-made for Gerwig, who specializes in inventive approaches to material that somehow unearth the deepest emotions within. It’s naturalism by way of understated kookiness, a route that simply shouldn’t work (and doesn’t for many performers who try futilely to tread similar ground). Like other directors who stick to indies, Baumbach recognized the boundless opportunity that stems from Gerwig’s uniquenes (Gerwig has largely confounded filmmakers who’ve worked with her on bigger studio films). Working with Gerwig as co-screenwriter, Baumbach has shaped a tale that ideally exploits ever bit of the actress’s delectable, delightful sideways approach.
If that was the extent of accomplishment of Frances Ha–a well-constructed setting for a star turn–it might be enjoyable, but it would ultimately be of only marginal significance. The thrilling brilliance of the film is that it serves as so much more: a explication of the tricky terrain of friendship, a portrait of a certain kind of New Yorker that feels more real than most similar depictions and, most notably, a sharp, bruising encapsulation of a notable, sadly under-explored portion of the journey from the cavalier possibility of youth to the settled, mundane procession of small accomplishments that characterizes typical adulthood. With unerring narrative rhythm, Baumbach digs into the tiny, meaningful truths that make up a life. in a direct counter-argument to most films, Frances Ha often gains traction by showing how the least sensational developments can actually be the most surprising and the most satisfying.
With its lovely black-and-white cinematography (by Sam Levy), its character-driven humor and its melding of the urban and urbane, the film Frances Ha most clearly recalls is Woody’s Allen’s 1979 masterwork, Manhattan, which Baumbach has openly acknowledge as an influence. I mean it as no small compliment when I say Frances Ha deserves to be discussed in that company.