If you’d like to spend an hour and a half sometime watching a thoroughly enjoyable portrait of an adorable young woman coming to grips with adult life in New York City, Frances Ha is the movie you should see. Directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Greta Gerwig as Frances, it is a simultaneously joyous and lonesome film, so meticulously crafted that it feels absolutely natural. Baumbach and Gerwig also collaborated on the movie’s intuitive screenplay.
Frances is 27, but perhaps she seems older. She’s a dancer, she guesses — apprenticing with a modern dance company. “Everything’s up in the air,” she explains. Someone else suggests that she doesn’t have her shit together.
Frances does have a best friend named Sophie (Sting’s daughter Mickey Sumner), who is pursuing a career in publishing. They share secrets, and even blankets, “like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore.” Frances seems open to the idea of a boyfriend, but it’s not a goal she’s chasing. One male friend playfully jokes that her nerdy qualities make her “undatable.”
Frances Ha is a black and white movie — shot digitally with a small camera, and then processed to remove the color and emulate a certain glow seen in black and white film. A supplemental interview on the DVD explains this in some detail. The movie is an homage to French New Wave films like those by François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer. In another DVD extra, Baumbach cites John Cassavetes and Benoît Jacquot’s A Single Girl as other influences. I was also reminded at times of Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door. The technique is intimate and timeless. Shadows sometimes predominate over light. One short scene is almost completely black.
Frances, on the other hand, is about as full of color as a character can be. She is a self-doubting enthusiast of life, someone who engages exuberantly, and then self-consciously applies the brakes for fear of freaking others out. Her face shows all sorts of internal calibrations going on at all times. However, she’s not as neurotic as Woody Allen. Instead of putting herself under her own microscope, it’s like she’s carefully weighing her world — belatedly surrendering some immature ideals for more solid realizations.
Her sphere is peopled by other former youths reluctantly grappling with 30. For a while, she shares an apartment in Chinatown with two guys (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) who may or may not actually be sculpting or submitting scripts to SNL. Expenses like rent and food, and the company of more successful adults with children all make Frances anxious.
The magic in this movie is in its naturalness. Baumbach and Gerwig bring these people completely to life, then let you hang out with them as it unfolds. Frances and her friends make clever observations, absorb surprises, share laughs, hurt each other’s feelings, get drunk, and face facts.
Now and then, various well-chosen musical selections underscore the deft performances and beautiful photography. Compositions of Georges Delerue heighten the French New Wave feel, with pop tunes from David Bowie, Hot Chocolate, and T. Rex punching up other moments. (A Frances Ha soundtrack album is available.)
It was my wife Amy, hearing Noah Baumbach on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, that made us watch Frances Ha in the first place. We were both very happy we did. I rate the movie three and a half out of four stars.