Frances Ha

2012, Movie, R, 86 mins


Seeing as how Greta Gerwig pretty much claimed the title of reigning indie queen with her work in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg -- and since the two began a personal relationship after that movie was filmed -- it’s logical that for his follow-up they would collaborate again. What’s surprising about Frances Ha, which the pair co-wrote, is that for the first time Baumbach’s seemingly inherent cynicism has, at least for the time being, dissipated.

Gerwig stars as Frances, a twentysomething New Yorker whose life goes into a tailspin after her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) moves out of the apartment they share. Frances keeps getting kicked out of various living spaces, her apprenticeship with a dance company looks more and more like a dead-end proposition, and her love life lacks any sign of satisfaction.

That description makes the film sound an awful lot like it could have been made by Lena Dunham. You half expect to see the characters from Girls show up, and the presence of Adam Driver as one of the men in Frances’ circle of friends accentuates that association. The big difference is that Dunham takes a warts-and-all approach visually as well as on the page, whereas Baumbach has steeped this film in movie history; in a low-key way, he’s showing off here visually like he never has before, recalling the unforced naturalism of early Francois Truffaut. There’s a freedom to the picture’s editing and pacing that doesn’t necessarily reflect Frances’ reality, but does give us a sense of how she sees the world as full of possibility.

Like she did in Lola Versus, Gerwig makes her simultaneously selfish and decent struggling young New Yorker charismatically appealing, even when she’s behaving at her worst. It’s a rare skill that, while certainly familiar from her past work, gives Baumbach a new type of character to play with. While he’s never feared making the men in his movies look weak and despicable, he never indicates that he has anything but affection for Frances. This is so out of place from his previous films that the picture begins to play like a love letter to his new girlfriend rather than an attempt to evolve artistically.

Since his 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach has focused on the struggles of Generation X, and while it’s tempting to read Frances Ha as the beginning of his second act -- one in which he tackles new subjects and milieus -- it’s hard to escape the fact that his clear-eyed view of people’s failings along with his wit are what made him such a special talent in the first place. Frances Ha is the work of an artist in love, and in Baumbach’s case, it’s not clear that love is his most constructive muse. leave a comment --Perry Seibert

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