Frances Ha is a vehicle for Baubach girlfriend and mumlecore queen Greta Gerwig. Gerwig is a charmer who is appealing, humorous, and authentic and has a kind of glow about her on screen. Recent appearances (does her IMDb CV only go back to 2006?) in Baumbach’s own Greenberg, No Strings Attached, and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, a virtuoso verbal performance for her, she her increased mastery and an inching toward the mainstream. But Frances Ha is like a more pro-quality mumblecore film, a reaffirmation of indie loyalties by both Gerwig and Baumbach. Frances Ha, which is in black and white and largely set in Brooklyn, is a return to Baumbach’s New York origins after his California digression. It isn’t really about anything, as a whole. It’s organized by addresses, at least half a dozen of them, mostly in New York City (with a penultimate period of exile), and the best, early, part of it is about the interaction for Frances and her twenty-something cohorts between job, relationship, career ambitions, and apartment. The funniest, smartest, and most original scenes and dialogue show how who you’re sleeping with relates to your rent, your address, and whether you can pursue your ambitions or have to stick to a day job. If this movie succeeds, and its shapelessness makes that uncertain, it could redefine how young urban Americans are shown on film and move forward Baumbach’s and Gerwig’s careers. Or it might just be a video classic, like Baumbach’s obscure debut film Kicking and Screaming, which is in the Criterion Collection and which in some ways this film is closer to than to any of his subsequent efforts. The topic of both is that netherland between college and Life.
Some of the guys are quick-witted and funny, but they are unreliable and they change. Connecting thread turns out to be Frances’ bgf Sophie, played by the English actress Mickey Sumner (daughter of the singer Sting). Sophie wearns nerdie glasses, but has a good job and a fiance, a banker called Patch (Patrick Heusinger), a good old boy who says things like “I’m goin’ to take a leak.” Till Patch came into the picture, Frances and Sophie were clearly not thinking of marriage and saw themselves as living together “like an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” When on her own, Frances shares an apartment for awhile with two too-well-off “creative” young men who fail to see how privileged they are, one of whom calls her “undatable.” She takes a Christmas trip to her parents in Sacramento to avoid her fracturing New York connections. Then after the Paris débâcle, she accepts not joining the dance troupe, perhaps, since she’s at that definitive age of 27, the beginning of Life.
Frances Ha’s dialogue is so specific and amusing and defines its young Williamsburg, Brooklyn subculture and generation so precisely, that there isn’t really room for much to happen. And besides that there is the mumblecore generation’s chronically vague commitment-averse quality. Frances wants to be a dander, though; but she has to settle for a desk job at the dance troupe she wanted to join, along with putting on a small dance event of her own that gets compliments from the troups’e leader — but no contract. One of the defining (but typically directionless) sequences has Frances impulsively take a weekend in Paris, because people she knows offer her an apartment to stay in, but she can’t connect with her frineds there and has to return to New York before she’s recovered from jet lag.
In his admiring Telluride review for Variety Peter Debruge links Frances Ha with a class of “raggedy yet sincere semi-autobiographical films surfacing these days at Sundance, SXSW and other U.S. fests,” but notes the important difference of Baumbach’s more mature and polished point of view, plus links with the French New Wave (to which there are conscious allusions), Woody Allen (with Allen’s Manhattan an obvious link, since this too is in black and white) and “Andy Warhol’s Factory films.” All this Debruge asserts enables Baumbach to “capture a reality that has eluded him on his more polished dramedies.” This is quite true. Baumbach was more mainstream and generic in most of his previous movies. Frances Ha also outdoes mumblecore by having a script, which Baumbach and Gerwig carefully crafted together.
Frances Ha seems only partly a breakthrough for Baumbach. It’s a reviving and improving upon his roots, and it allows Gerwig to glow and be hilariously and winningly unpredictable and witty as only she can, but time and the box office will tell if the public will respond despite the plotlessness and the somewhat neutral grayish black and white. As Baumbach noted in a press Q&A for the New York Film Festival, it is almost impossible to shoot in traditional black and white any more, because you can’t get the film processed. He was forced as others have been to shoot in digital colour, and convert it to black and white, which is a little too metallic-looking for my taste here.
The film debuted at Telluride Sept. 1, then Toronto Sept. 7, and New York (Lincoln Center) Sept. 30. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Writers: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver
Runtime: 86 min