Movie Review: Frances Ha- A Disarmingly Sweet and Perceptively Witty Reflection on Mid-Twenties Malaise from Auteur Noah Baumbach

frances-ha05Auteur filmmaker Noah Baumbach has specialized throughout his career in humorlessly reflecting on the various purgatories in our lives, or rather those lost years of stasis where the unknowns of life’s supposed plans hit the unknowns within ourselves head on. His study of post-collegiate malaise in Kicking and Screaming was the genesis of his uniquely quirky vision—a blend of Whit Stillman’s observationally verbose wit and Woody Allen’s hilarious yet humanist portraits—that has carried on to other notable character studies he’s penned, such as the dysfunctional family drama The Squid and the Whale and the mid-life crisis comedy Greenberg. It was clear in the most sincere moments of the film Greenberg that Baumbach had a creative chemistry with one of its stars Greta Gerwig which has resulted in a new collaborative effort between them to create Baumbach’s latest poignantly comedic film entitled Frances Ha, an energetically funny yet undeniably relatable contemplation on the aloof mid-twenties condition. Utilizing crisp black & white cinematography capturing the naturalistic backdrops of New York City, Sacramento, and Paris, Frances Ha possesses an alluring charm mostly through Greta Gerwig’s charismatic performance but also in the film’s embodiment of French New Wave revivalism that allows substance to shine in even the most monotonous of human interactions. This short and sweet tale on the ambiguity of adult life highlights the changing nature of responsibility, friendship, and love with a surprisingly modest and heartfelt genuineness rarely experienced in film. Though it might have some minor similarities to Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls” there is no denying that Frances Ha is distinctly Baumbach in character design, cinematic style, and written cleverness. Protagonist Frances proclaims that she “loves things that appear as mistakes” which on its face is the eloquent sentiment that summarizes the film’s genuine depiction of mid-twenties paralysis in the face of responsibility. Frances Ha ranks highly in Noah Baumbach’s worthwhile filmography because it is probably his most accessible, authentically charming, and least pretentious film all thanks to the screenwriting aid and engaging performance from Greta Gerwig.

There is a rare pragmatism to Baumbach and Gerwig’s script for Frances Ha, one that translates into stronger relatable characters and scenarios that show in truth the struggles of meandering societal detachment. The film follows Frances (Greta Gerwig), an aspiring dancer in the competitive creative market of New York City, who is perhaps the greatest representation of unique quirkiness to be featured in one of Baumbach’s films. Frances’ disarming charm is what keeps us engaged in her sometimes frustrating battle with her own inability to accept life’s downturns and we have nothing but sympathy for her free yet occasionally ignorant nature. The dialogue, as it is with most Baumbach features, is undeniably fresh keeping the interactions not only amusing but also grounded in a sense of belief where conversational awkwardness, humiliating build-ups, and explicit sexual discussions all seem vaguely familiar. More often than not quirky characters and attempts at intelligent dialogue become burdens to the storytelling process as their entertaining ploys distracts from telling the intended story. That isn’t the case here because every character from Frances’ pseudo-Don Juan roommate Lev (Adam Driver) to her reluctant dance partner Rachel (Grace Gumner) all possess that rare authenticity as if they are characters from our own lives. The rhythms of the characters are already succinctly perceived in the script’s unusual yet perfect sense of timing where nothing is wasted and everything has a purpose. In the end Frances Ha could be considered the female gender equivalent of a “bromance” because the friendship between Frances and her best friend Sophie (Michey Sumner) is the true subject of this romantic comedy. Their friendship’s universal struggle with life’s externalities coming between their individual growth is heightened by the script’s balance between natural humor and realistic drama. Though some might find the overabundance of quirkiness to be a tad strained there aren’t any moments of forceful eccentricity allowing Frances Ha to unfold as the well-crafted study of mid-twenties stasis it intended to be. Gerwig might have contributed a great deal to the screenwriting foundation of the film but ultimately the film’s style, pacing, and rhythm is all irrefutably Baumbach.

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To portray social awkwardness, either in the sexual or formal variety, there needs to be an appropriate balance between revealing the intimate and also possessing a non-judgmental disconnection towards your subjects, which is a quality Noah Baumbach has perfected over his career. Whether it’s a scene featuring the often-dreaded question, “What do you do?,” featuring an insightfully witty comeback from Frances herself, or the explicit sexual discussions of genitalia, Baumbach knows how to make the mundane observationally humorous creating commonplace and relatable circumstances. His is visual choices pierce conventional wisdom and give his characters ample freedom to emerge in their flaws, complexities, and quirks. Collaborating with cinematographer Sam Levy (Wendy & Lucy) Baumbach has chosen to capture his film in crisp Black & White, which being set mostly in New York City has the rival essence of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. As a student of French New Wave cinema it’s clear that Baumbach has not only borrowed some finer elements from Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Godard’s Band of Outsiders but his true homage to that time period of cinema is represented fully in utilizing the music of Georges Delerue. There isn’t any sense of true momentum in any of Baumbach’s films because the focus is strictly on the characters and yet each sort of vignette within Frances Ha, split up by the changing of temporary residences, build on their own to form a more realized study of the mid-twenties malaise. Minimalism with camerawork or setups or choices of edits might appear to some as lazy filmmaking but every chosen lingering shot or observational pan enhances the atmosphere of quarter life stasis and gives Frances Ha a deeply reflective tone amidst its quirky and humorous presentation. This is a film where the technical elements are chosen around the script’s sole focus on the character of Frances and the various people who enter and exit through a particularly impulsive time in her life meaning nothing is used in excess and every shot is carefully positioned. Frances Ha might be Baumbach’s most gracefully paced film and also his least pretentious allowing the comedic nuances and subtle drama to fully engage you in an entertaining and thought provoking way.

Of course the incredibly written characters or the fine tuned technical rhythms wouldn’t have worked if the performances lacked the natural and humanist qualities they truly needed and as always Baumbach has followed through directing his diversely comedic cast. Co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig not only helped create the character of Frances on the page but she also launched her full self into a physical, quirky, and intelligent performance on the screen. Her portrayal of a hapless, wandering twenty-seven year old with creative dreams and high expectations is not only completely believable but it’s one of the most charming performances of her career, of which she’s had many including Baumbach’s Greenberg and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Gerwig has resisted the Hollywood temptation of wasting her talent on mediocre projects (the remake of Arthur aside) and has kept her dramatic and charming integrity, which is on full display throughout her engaging performance in Frances Ha. The chemistry between her and fellow co-star Mickey Sumner breathes life into the film as their friendship has the naturalistic beats and sincere moments that we all experience in our lives. Sumner also had the responsibility of rivaling the unstoppable idiosyncrasy of Gerwig, which she does incredibly well allowing her straight reactions to time well with the bursts of oddness. There is vulnerability in these lead performances and it certainly gives the audience a sympathetic foundation for their individual relationship struggles and the tension in their friendship. The rest of the supporting cast from “Girls” regular Adam Driver to relative newcomer Grace Gumner give each of their eccentric characters a grounded realism and they never take any cheap routes to getting a laugh. Baumbach has a history of getting great performances from his actors, whether it’s the Nicole Kidman in his deservedly least acclaimed film Margot at the Wedding or a drastic turnaround for Ben Stiller in Greenberg, and Frances Ha serves as the same starring turn for Greta Gerwig.

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John Lennon once paraphrased a quote stating, “life is what happens when you’re making plans” and that might be an appropriate summation of the film Frances Ha. This current self-centered generation with their sense of entitlement and their feeling of invincibility never imagine that plans alter, dreams disappear, or life’s journey takes unexpected pivots into unknown terrain. The protagonist Frances is one of those dreamers that expects the familiarity and comfort of her existence to never change and it takes a series of setbacks, separations, and location changes to find her inner self, or find truth that might appear as a mistake. Noah Baumbach and co-screenwriter/star Greta Gerwig have written an expressively humoristic study on the mid-twenties malady where the struggle to find purpose or your self-awareness takes a few detours on the path of most resistance. Frances Ha might not have been fully written by Noah Baumbach but the execution from the French New Wave minimalism to the rhythmic awkwardness in his scenes is fully in tune with his auteur sensibilities. Audiences are desperate for comedies that have true character, relatable circumstances, and perceptively witty dialogue and Baumbach has delivered another film that fills the void that Woody Allen continues to leave open. Frances Ha is not only one of Baumbach’s finer films but it’s also a disarmingly sweet and intuitively clever reflection on young adulthood’s unexpected turmoils that definitely deserves to be seen.

Grade: B+

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