Enlivened by the awkward elbow charm of its star and grounded by the cynical wit of its director, Frances Ha is a small movie that makes a big impact. To call it a masterpiece feels like a guaranteed way of setting expectations so high that the delicate achievements it delivers will feel disappointing. However, there’s no denying that the flick is something special, tapping into universal pains and experiences with the humor and insight that used to define Woody Allen at his best. Co-creators Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach emerge as a duo who bring so much of the best out of each other that you’ll hope it’s the beginning of a long collaboration that might not ever deliver something so spot on again, but could at least be relied upon for something interesting every time. This is the perfect movie to cuddle up and fall in love with in a small theater this summer while superheroes loudly save/destroy the world in neighboring theaters.
Gerwig stars rather perfectly as the titular Frances. At 27 she’s an aspiring dancer hitting an age where “aspiring” means “failed” and still lives in a post-college bubble of immaturity that’s about to pop. Early on, she dumps a inconsequential boyfriend to spend more time with her best friend/roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who she claims to be the same person with different hair. The only trouble is that Sophie has a real job and soon decides to move out to Tribeca and get serious about her boyfriend. That throws Frances into a bit of an existential funk, moving into a series of awkwardly impermanent living situations as she struggles to put off growing up as long as possible. Of course, life has a way of forcing that to happen, no matter how many impromptu trips to Paris or failed decisions that Frances throws in it’s way.
Frances Ha deals with that “quarter life crisis” thing that’s become a bit of a buzz word. Fortunately, it’s also a genuine experience everyone goes through and Gerwig/Baumbach know it all too well. Noah Baumbach has a way with creating characters whose perception of themselves is completely different than how others perceive them and there are plenty of laughs and harsh truths to be mined from theme here. Frances might be lost, but not without reason and Gerwig/Baumbach are able to present her somewhat trivial troubles with enough poignancy to make it hurt and enough distance to make it funny. Gerwig’s gloriously goofy personality and unerringly naturalistic performance style gently curb Baumbach’s comic misanthrope just enough to keep the movie from being as alienating as Greenberg or Margot At The Wedding. While the director’s acidic wit keeps the movie from becoming an obnoxious cornball indie quirk fest. There’s something real about these characters and world that needs a soft touch, but at the same time presenting them as triumphant heroes would be thoroughly inappropriate. So the jabs of harsh comedy keep things from ever getting sentimental. Even the happy ending comes with a sting of defeat and failure that might not be noticeable on the initial viewing, but is very much there.
Gerwig commands the screen in her first lead role in a movie very much developed for and around her unique talents. It might be too obvious of a comparison, but there’s a little bit of a Diane Keaton/Annie Hall ideal casting here. Frances embodies all of Gerwig natural charms, while still offering enough foibles and failures to be an interesting character for her to dig into as an actress. This is not the vanity piece it easily could have been, but a movie that can stand on it’s own that just happens to be tailored to it’s star. The co-writer, actor/star duo also indulge in recreating some of their favorite films without slipping into navel-gazing. The New-York in romantic/candid black and white strikes a perfect balance between the expressive classicism of Manhattan and the run and gun vibrancy of a French New Wave flick. It’s an ideal aesthetic for a character piece, transforming a series of scenes of people talking into something vibrantly cinematic and composed for big screen consumption.
There’s something about the sweetly cutting tone of Frances Ha that feels both of the moment and charmingly old fashioned. It’s a movie that older film fans can slide into through it’s influences while introducing younger audiences to a style of filmmaking they’ve never experienced before. In an ideal world, insightful indie comedies like this would be as prevalent on movie screens as superhero blockbusters. That’s just not the case and nor will it be for the foreseeable future. However, that’s not just a cold hard reality of the economics of filmmaking. Nope, it’s because as loose and tossed off as a movie like this might feel while watching it, getting that tone right and aligning all the right actors and pieces in place is as difficult and miraculous as the most expensively unwieldy Hollywood production. Something special happened when Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig got together to make a little movie for themselves withouth worrying about whether or not anyone would see it. Hopefully it’s not the last time they have a private party and invite us to see the results.