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.
Good review. And mostly agreed. Definitely a fun ride, and Frances is certainly an enchanting character, played with remarkable skill by Gerwig.
I’m not sure what the movie’s theme was, really, but I am sure I liked it all the same.
Cheers. I think the film is ultimately a coming of age tale of accepting ‘adulthood’ (whatever that means).
I’m not a huge fan of Baumbach, but I feel like this may be his most pleasant film, ever. Frances is basically just Greta Gerwig playing herself, however, she’s always so pleasant and radiant to watch, it doesn’t help that she can’t make up her mind on half of the decisions she makes in her life. Good review.
Thanks Dan. I’d certainly rate this as his most accessible and likeable picture. Gerwig shines off the screen; she’s a real indie queen.
Nice review. It grew a bit too quirky and overbearing for me near the end, but I had a lot of fun with Frances Ha.
Thanks very much mate. I liked the ending; I actually thought the start was a bit too kooky for its own good.
I’m a big fan of this picture. I thought its style and script were very good. And Gerwig is right in her comfort zone.
Glad to hear it my friend. I’ve never been sold on Gerwig, although she’s likeable here.
I really need to see this film. So many have recommended it to me.
Make sure you do! Would be interested in your review 🙂
I’m a big fan of Greta Gerwig and really enjoyed Frances Ha. I just watched it recently and it had me wondering during the middle, but it ended really well. I’ve liked most of Baumbach’s films, but he can have a mean streak with his characters. This was refreshing because he didn’t let Frances off the hook but wasn’t overly nasty towards her.
Quite agree. Baumbach does cast a critical gaze on his less-than-likeable characters, but he’s switched gear here. Thanks for the feedback.
I kept putting this one off every time I saw it on Netflix Streaming. I should give it a shot, it’ll be the first movie of Baumbach and Gerwig I’d watch 🙂
I think you’d enjoy it. It’s a good starting point for both Baumbach and Gerwig.
Lovely review, I’m actually excited to see this now, you made it seem very charming and I love the screencap where Frances hangs out with Lev, seems like a lot fun!
Couldn’t agree more bud, this movie was quite something. Gerwig made it infinitely more watchable with her at-times frustrating but always upbeat and dynamic performance. This was my first Baumbach film experience so maybe I should proceed with caution if I decide to see more of his work
Cheers Tom. It’s a good starting off point. The Squid and the Whale is a good place to go next.
Nice review mate, definitely interested in seeing this. Heard some really good things about it and looks like something I’d really like.
I believe you would Chris!
Hey Mark i’m so glad you enjoy this one too! I havent seen a lot of baumbach but i think i’m so smitten by Frances Ha i’m considering of checking out his older works as well 😀
Think I’d like this one. Thanks for the review! : )