2013, R, 86 mins.
2013, R, 86 mins.
Greta Gerwig as Frances Halliday / Mickey Sumner as Sophie / Michael Zegen as Benji / Adam Driver as Lev
Directed by Noah Baumbach / Written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Noah Baumbach’s FRANCES HA is an equal parts effervescently funny and sometimes gloomy examination of how the idealistic dreams of young people in their twenties living in the big city seem to be impeded by distressing social and financial realities.
also pretty spot-on in terms of showing the life of one post-college grad
- cruising towards thirty - desperately striving, with alternating levels of
success and failure, to both reinvent who she is while trying
to cling to relationships that unavoidably are being driving apart by forces
beyond one’s control. Baumbach
has demonstrated himself to be a real master of focusing on the darker
underbelly of human relationships (see his searing divorce drama THE
SQUID AND THE WHALE or GREENBERG,
his brutally frank an uneasy portrait of a truly dislikeable middle class
cretin), but FRANCES HA seems a bit more kind and gentle in focus.
not to say that Baumbach’s lead character here in his new film is
without foibles. Hardly.
Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig, also serving as co-writer) is
anything but perfect and well adjusted.
She’s a sprightly 27-year-old Sacramento native that’s trying
to – as she can – make a life for herself in Manhattan.
She’s a dancer by training, but she’s beginning to realize that she may be past her prime in
her efforts to achieve her “big break.”
She does have ample pluck and an indomitable spirit of hope for the
future, even when the harsh economic weight of living in a sprawling and expensive
city with relatively no money is making her aspirations all the more
difficult to attain. Worse
yet for poor Frances is that she tries to grasp on to – with almost an
adolescent level of obsession - one friendship in particular that you
just know will not consistently stay afloat.
Maybe that’s Frances’ real issue: she’s a kid trapped in an
adult body. “I’m so
embarrassed,” she sheepishly admits at one point.
“I’m not a real person yet.”
the film opens, rather joyously, we see Frances and her BFF and roommate,
Sophie (Mickey Summer) at the height of their platonic – and maybe beyond
platonic – relationship. The
opening montage has a carefree whimsicality to it: We see the pair prance
through their daily existence without much of a care in the world (“We
are like a lesbian couple that does not have sex anymore,” Frances
amusingly deadpans). However,
Frances is dealt with a personal blow to her happiness with Sophie when
she decides to move in with a new roommate. This means that the
borderline poverty-stricken Frances has to fend for herself and seek out a
new person to live with, seeing as rental life in the Big Apple for
someone like her is a highly difficult one.
importantly, Sophie leaving Frances has forced her, perhaps against her
own choosing, to learn how to grow up and cope with supporting herself
without any outside aid. Her
initial journey in this respect is a semi-rocky one.
She does manage to find new roomies in Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji
(Michael Zegen), two Brooklynites who appear to have a far better station
in life than Frances. Initially,
it seems that there may be romantic sparks between the aspiring SNL writer
hipster Benji and Frances, but Gerwig and Baumbach’s script is refined
and shrewdly drawn for how it sort of leads viewers on to think that this
would be a possibility, only then to pull the rug out from under their
feet and never really go down that road.
At one point Benji dubs her as “undateable” and the somewhat
trivial zinger at her expense seems to dog her for the rest of the film.
He may have a point: Frances is so blissfully unaware of how
socially awkward and uncoordinated she is at times that making serious
connections with men proves to be nearly impossible.
Frances' inability to emotionally part ways with Sophie is the issue.
Their relationship is a complex one, to be sure.
Sophie is successful and going places, whereas Frances is not,
which consequently leaves her adhering to Sophie like Krazy Glue to stay
afloat. When Sophie leaves and then becomes involved with another man,
Frances is left feeling an incalculable void to fill.
She’s in such a stare of perpetual arrested development that
maturing and finding herself is daunting.
The greatness of the FRANCES HA is that Baumbach and Gerwig manage
to simultaneously suggest a woman that deserves our simultaneous sympathy
and scorn. You feel for her
when she feels let down by life, but nonetheless want to smack her upside
the head to get her out of her own self-denial of easily being able to go places
in life that she wants. Oftentimes,
Frances can’t succeed because, frankly, she really does not put much
effort or work into achieving her seemingly unattainable dreams.
She’s not loathsomely selfish, but she does want things to
conveniently go her way at the most inconvenient times.
brings such naturalness to all of her performances.
She’s deceptively and naturally pretty, but can also easily evoke
– as she does here in the film - a kooky, well-meaning, but deeply
flawed woman that has been beaten down by what she perceives as unmovable obstacles. Frances is a real
polarizing figure in the film: Too dark and somber of a portrayal would
have made her too deplorable to stomach for 90 minutes, but too warm, bubbly,
and joyously eccentric and Frances would have come off as unrealistically
rendered. Gerwig walks a
deceptively difficult highwire performance act in the film by making
Frances an oddly endearing, yet sometimes disagreeable creation, and
it’s a testament to her skills as an actress that she is equal to the
challenge of pulling it off.
and cinematographer Sam Levy intentionally, I think, paint the screen with
a wonderfully evocative and grain-infused black and white look that echoes
what Woody Allen did with MANHATTAN all those decades ago.
Framing the film with this aesthetic enriches the city that never
sleeps in both a highly romanticized dreamworld that fuels Frances' hopes.
It’s no wonder that she believes that anything can happen in this
city, and in a way FRANCES HA is almost kind of a beautifully rendered
visual love ballad to the metropolis and all of its intoxicating
environmental splendor. Less
entrancing, though, is the film's fractured and frequently haphazard nature
with scenes and editing. The
movie will test patience in many filmgoers that require traditional
plotting. FRANCES HA has a
very loose, improvisational, and staccato narrative momentum that, in some
ways, reflects the main character's own lack of a plan.
If the film were to have a fault
then I would say that it's story, like Frances herself, takes a bit
of time to develop a purpose for being.
Yet, FRANCES HA spoke to me, not because I’ve been to Manhattan – which I haven’t – and not because I am a lost girl in a big city – which I’m not, nor have ever been! It spoke to me because I can recall a time in my mid-to-late twenties when I realized – gosh – that I really had to make something of myself as an adult in order to sustain myself and not further rely on others for financial and emotional support. In the end, I think that the film is about the tense voyage of finally becoming an accountable and self-actualized grown-up. Even in the film’s final scene – pitch perfectly rendered with a glorious final shot that explains the film’s title so ingeniously and simply – you gain a sense that Frances is finally learning this lesson. Then again, she may always be a dumb kid at heart. My favorite scene of any film from 2013 occurs early in FRANCES HA as we see the title character race and dance through the streets of Manhattan to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” It perfectly encapsulates both the joys – and inescapable folly – of youthful exuberance and resolve.