Greta Gerwig gives a sensational, career-defining performance as the titular character of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, a consistently witty and charming story of late-20s aimlessness and sisterly love. At once a monochromatic tribute to the French New Wave and a warm celebration of the Big Apple in the tradition of Woody Allen (Manhattan) and Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), this surprisingly crowd-pleasing indie comedy is the most rewarding of Gerwig and Baumbach’s respective careers — not to mention the most fun I have had at the movies this year.
Frances Ha is the story of 27-year-old Frances (Gerwig) — whose full surname is not revealed until the splendid final minutes — an enthusiastic New York dance apprentice who struggles to pay rent. We meet Frances as she casually breaks up with a needy boyfriend in order to keep living with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner aka Sting’s daughter) — “we’re the same person, with different hair”, she tells everyone. It’s not long, however, until Sophie decides to move in with her boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), dashing Frances’ naive vision of a platonic soulmate. Soon she is bouncing from place to place — title cards reveal specific addresses — including a stay with trust-fund artist pals, Lev (Girls‘ Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen); a more successful member of her dance company, Rachel (Grace Gummer aka Meryl Streep’s daughter); her parents in Sacramento (played by Gerwig’s real parents); and most depressingly, her old college in Washington Heights. Baumbach is content to let the narrative unfold in the same loose manner as Frances’ life, but the pace is lively throughout and there is not a wasted minute in this exhilarating and concise film.
Frances clearly lacks some basic life skills, and she can make for awkward company — Benji regularly describes her as “undateable”; a particularly embarrassing dinner with Lev leaves Frances confessing, “I’m not a real person yet” — but the endearing Gerwig ensures we are always on her side, imbuing Frances with just the right balance of charm and clumsiness, and she is never as difficult as Baumbach’s previous protagonists. One of the mumblecore movement’s greatest success stories (alongside Mark Duplass), Gerwig has quickly risen from the no-budget likes of Baghead and Nights and Weekends (which she also wrote) to key roles in Baumbach’s Greenberg, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, impressing in each. With Frances she at last has her breakout role, and Gerwig does not disappoint — occupying nearly every frame of the film and firing off quips with sitcom-style precision, she effortlessly elevates what might have been a quirky role in a lesser actress’ hands to something real, layered and deeply affecting. This is undeniably Gerwig’s film, and audiences will be hard pressed to find a better female lead performance this year. The significantly glammed-down Sumner makes an impressive debut here in the film’s only other significant role, providing a grounded and crucial foil to Gerwig’s overwhelming energy, while Driver continues to be one of the most watchable young American actors around (somebody give him a lead role, already!).
Frances Ha marks an unexpected new direction for Baumbach; while he tackled similar subject matter with his 1995 debut, Kicking and Screaming — a perceptive, Linklater-esque take on post-collegiate ennui — his work has never been this exuberant and unencumbered before. Credit for this is no doubt due to the influence of Ms Gerwig, who — in her multiple roles as Baumbach’s co-writer, lead actress, and real-life partner — seems to have brought out a welcome warmth in a filmmaker known primarily for his mordant writing (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Squid and the Whale). This upbeat mood extends to the thrilling soundtrack, which is peppered with infectious pop hits — including T.Rex, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson, and most prominently, David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ and Hot Chocolate’s ‘Ever 1’s a Winner’ — as well as several borrowed score cuts from legendary French composer George Delerue (a regular collaborator of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut).
Regardless of whether or not Frances Ha is the year’s “best” film — it’s certainly a contender, with strong competition from Upstream Color and Before Midnight — it is very likely the most joyous and emotionally satisfying 86 minutes you will spend in a cinema. A few detractors have lazily labelled the film “hipster” or “twee”, but this is neither accurate nor fair and betrays a certain contempt towards young people and indie filmmaking — not to mention a total lack of heart. After laughing and swooning all the way through (and occasionally feeling mortified by how much I related to Frances’ arrested development), I left the theatre positively beaming — excited to share quotes with friends (“Ahoy, sexy!”), dance to ‘Modern Love’ and see the film again. I couldn’t imagine a better recommendation than that.
Watch the trailer for Frances Ha below, and find out when it is next screening here.