One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – as Noah Baumbach’s charming tale about arrested development on the too-cool-for-school streets of New York City attests.
More respected than cherished, Baumbach has made a habit of shining a harsh light on his liberal WASP-ish characters, none more so than in his last three pictures The Squid And The Whale (2005), Margot At The Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010), wherein Ben Stiller’s titular misanthrope stumbles along a fine line between amusing and annoying.
For his latest film, Baumbach softens this harsh gaze by switching his focus away from characters crippled by regret to a protagonist who, in her own words, isn’t “a real person yet”.
That character is played by Greta Gerwig, whose turn as Violet Wister in Whit Stilman’s ill-judged Damsels In Distress was so irritating as to colour my judgement of the actress. In spite of the near-universal praise lavished on Frances Ha, I consequently approached the film with apprehension.
However, just as Sally Hawkins’ performance as the relentlessly upbeat Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky won me over in spite of myself, so to does Gerwig as Frances, a struggling dancer in her late twenties who lives day-to-day with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) in Brooklyn.
Frances compares their relationship to that of “a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore”, but when Sophie is asked to move into the perfect apartment with her boyfriend the bubble bursts. Frances has a habit of falling on her feet, though, and the film follows her as she moves between apartments, her parent’s home in Sacramento and a spontaneous sojourn in Paris.
Those with a glass-half-empty disposition may find themselves shifting uneasily in their seats during the opening montage which sees Frances and Sophie kookily buzzing around NYC. However, spend some time with Frances and it becomes impossible not to warm to her heart-on-sleeve brio despite regular bouts of self-absorption.
Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach, gives the best performance of her career and infuses Frances with an awkwardness and eagerness-to-please that’s set against bursts of shameless exuberance. Her dance through the New York streets to David Bowie’s Modern Love is as joyous a moment of cinema as you’ll see all year. It’s one of several inspired marriages of sound and vision (to borrow another Bowie song title); another being the use of Hot Chocolate’s Every 1’s A Winner over Frances’ impromptu trip to Paris.
Sumner does a fine job as a more toned-down version of Frances; someone who is facing her own doubts about moving on. Sophie’s nostalgia for a life-less-complicated is matched by hipsters Lev (Girls‘ Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), who temporarily share their apartment with Frances and find themselves sucked in to her ever-changing life.
Benji shares a particular bond with Frances over their penchant for self-contradiction. By way of example, Benji proudly points to a photo and says: “That’s me with Jay Leno.” When Frances retorts “he’s such a dick”, Benji replies: “I know, but don’t you just love him?”
The film’s stunning black and white photography inevitably brings to mind that other ode to New York, New York; Woody Allen’s Manhattan, although the film’s willful abandon also very consciously nods in the direction of the French New Wave, in particular François Truffaut.
Frances Ha can be seen as that last hurrah before the inescapable call of adulthood becomes too loud to ignore. Don’t pre-judge it; just go with the flow like Frances and give yourself in to its charms.