Monday, November 4, 2013

Frances Ha

Grade: 86/A-

Noah Baumbach is one of cinema’s great poets of the in-between. From his debut with 1996’s Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach has specialized in humorous portraits of people struggling to define themselves and connect with others. His past three films (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg) took him to darker territory, following protagonists whose misanthropy belied extreme loneliness. Baumbach returns to comparatively light territory with Frances Ha, but it’s no less incisive in its look at rootless twentysomethings.

The film follows Frances Halladay (Greenberg’s Greta Gerwig), a 27-year-old barely-working dancer in New York. Frances lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, the daughter of Sting), a successful publisher, but when Sophie moves in with another friend, their friendship is tested, and Frances bounces from couch to couch as she struggles to find solid footing.

Frances Ha was shot quickly and on-the-cheap in 2012, and it plays like Woody Allen’s Manhattan directed by François Truffaut. The film combines Baumbach’s neurotic, verbose sensibility with early French New Wave-style mobility and inventiveness (with more than a dash of Cassavetes-influenced spontaneity and autocriticism). It’s unfortunate that the low-budget necessitated that Baumbach use a DSLR camera (Canon EOS 5D Mark II), which can’t handle the required depth-of-field or shadows in black-and-white and gives the film an ugly, pixelated look instead of the sharp picture it should have.

But more often than not, his concept is strong enough to overcome the cruddy images. This film is light and free, and it’s hard to complain too much when Baumbach does a left-of-field homage to Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (complete with Frances dancing to David Bowie’s “Modern Love), or follows her through a hilarious trek across New York to find an ATM. Even better is Baumbach’s use of Hot Chocolate’s funk classic “Every 1’s a Winner” during Frances’s ill-advised trip to Paris, which Frances uses (unsuccessfully) to combat her loneliness and anger at Sophie’s impending move. And the film has a beautifully episodic quality that fits perfectly with its portrait of post-college doldrums.

Baumbach and Gerwig co-wrote the script for Frances Ha, which gives Gerwig the best showcase for her loopy charm yet. Gerwig gives a funny, empathetic performance as a woman whose flightiness barely hides that her neediness and deep insecurity. A great early scene shows her with a friend (Adam Driver of Girls), and when she gives the “well, I guess I should get going” spiel where she expects to be asked to stay, she’s instead given detailed directions to the subway station. Baumbach and Gerwig also give Sumner a juicy role as Sophie, whose speedier development (and deepening relationship with her boyfriend) gives her higher priorities and an understandable frustration with Frances.

Baumbach and Gerwig don’t excuse their characters’ behavior or attitudes, but the film’s warmth and understanding for them helps make Frances Ha one of the most poignant late coming-of-age films in recent memory. Adapting to adulthood is difficult, but it’s not impossible. It’s all just a matter of adjusting expectations.

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