Frances Ha

The first thing to know about Frances Ha is that you have to forgive its enigmatic title, which make sense, sort of, in the final scene. (But if the movie had had a better title, I am convinced more people would have seen it.) Secondly, the film is in black and white, something that I personally love, but that some people don’t. (The other black and white movie this season is Joss Wheedon’s marvelous Much Ado About Nothing, which I think was more entertaining in black and white than color.)

Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) claims he shot Frances Ha in black and white to give a “nostalgic” feel (read–so that it was like Woody Allen’s films about Manhattan) to a very personal film that takes place in contemporary New York City. Okay, go figure the logic on that one. Anyway, the black and white is wonderful so don’t let that dissuade you from seeing the film.

Frances Ha is one of those films–there are a few each year–that become critics darlings. That means the film gets a lot of press, but few normal people actually spend their hard-earned movie dollars to see it. Ensuring that not many people will see the movie while it’s out in the theatres is the fact that it’s about a woman, and we all know that women-centric films don’t bring in the hordes.

So my job here is to convince you to see the film on DVD when it comes out because you’ve probably already missed it in the theatre.

Noah Baumbach directed the film and co-wrote it with Greta Gerwig, who happens to be his girlfriend. I think it’s so hard to become a working actress these days, that I say– go for whatever it takes to get you onscreen. Obviously Noah is still in love with Greta because his camera adores her, capturing her luminous face in every possible angle, making it glow like a magic lantern at every moment.

Greta is a big girl, not a lithesome willow, and she charges through life, not like an elegant greyhound, but like a lumbering St. Bernard puppy, tripping on its big feet and almost slobbering on you in her attempt to get you to like her. Despite the fact that there is no sex in the movie, no “odd couple” zaniness, no car chases, no crime, no violence, not even any “Big Fights,” you stay fascinated. Not, mind you, because it’s that good of a movie, but because Greta Gerwig is just so darn likeable.

Frances is 27 years old and lives in a tiny apartment with her best friend from college days, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), whom she loves with wild abandon. The two are inseparable. Frances says they’re “like a lesbian couple who never have sex” and in some ways that’s true. Problems arise when Sophie, who is a few steps further up the maturity ladder than Frances is, decides she wants to move in with another friend in a neighborhood that is more upscale.

Frances is devastated emotionally, and at a big loss financially because as a wannabe dancer with no dancing talent, she doesn’t really have enough money to pay the rent by herself. So when Sophie moves out, Frances moves in with two guy pals – both of whom are on trust funds so at least they can afford a New York apartment. She becomes a close gal pal to charming Lev (Adam Driver), who would really like to bed her, but she’s so much bigger than he is that he keeps his distance. Too bad for Frances, but good for us, because the last thing we in the audience need is to see Frances waylaid from her pot-holed life journey by getting detoured by a man.

While she aches for Sophie’s friendship, Frances moves through a series of maturity-challenging predicaments – always talking too much, revealing too much, eating too much, in general, being a typical aimless New York City denizen of a certain age. Meanwhile Sophie not only gets involved with a man, but she actually gets engaged to him, and plans to go off with him to Japan when he gets an assignment there. Frances’ idealistic relationship with Sophie is further in the distance than it ever was. Yet, poor Frances, dreamy, unrealistic, good-natured Frances, is no closer to her own maturity goals than she was when she was playing house with Sophie.

Like all good scripts, the story lines come together, sort of, and there’s a resolution, sort of, and Frances, sort of, manages to find her own apartment. The movie of course is a character study, a slice of life in a year of living youthfully in the most exciting city in the world (boy, do I miss New York when I see movies like this one—much more benign than Woody Allen’s vision believe me). It sort of talks about what it means to be a young woman today and why that is such a difficult prospect. But mostly the film is about courage – the courage to deny reality for as long as possible, and instead dream the impossible dream so fiercely that it eventually comes true.

Even though I thank my lucky stars that Frances Ha is not my daughter, nor – even more gratitude– was I ever like Frances Ha myself – Gerwig’s portrayal is so believable, so touching, so unforgettable, that when the film was over I found myself identifying so closely with Frances that I wished she had been my friend when I was 27. Not many films can accomplish such a feat — and that is the glorious power and beauty of the film.

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