|Left to right: Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig|
*Note: This review originally appeared on the website CinemaBeach. Not covered is its Oscar chances, which don't feel too good. At most, it could get a Best Original Screenplay nomination, but it seems unlikely.
In 2005, director and writer Noah Baumbach released the highly successful The Squid and the Whale. Dealing with a family’s divorce, he managed to blend despair with comedy in an exciting new way. His stories deal with internal struggle that looks lethargic on screen. Despite this, his strong suit lies in his ability to slowly unravel facts and information through awkward character moments. With his latest film Frances Ha, he attempts to translate that to the life of a young woman whose life falls apart when her best friend moves away. Is he able to capture the magic again, or is it time for his movies to do something external?
Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a dancer who dreams of spending life with Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Their childish behavior makes them kindred spirits as they play fight their way through New York. Trouble starts when Frances loses Sophie and an apartment, causing her to live with strangers while trying to put her life in order. This is quickly distracted by trips to Paris and watching movies all day. Frances is a mess with no reason to change. The film follows her as she makes mistakes while attempting to become a responsible adult.
The charm of Frances Ha is located in the script. Co-written by Gerwig, it manages to feel at times too real. While Frances isn’t a highly motivated character, it is her interactions that give the film merit. The chemistry between Frances and Sophie is fascinating to watch as they talk frankly about sex and dream of ridiculous futures. This is an exploration of how a best friend influences our personal drive. By eliminating it for half of the film, it creates a bold contrast that allows Frances and Sophie’s brief screen time together to pack a punch. The film is divided into chapters signified by apartment addresses. These help to represent periods of Frances’ life. Rarely are they eventful, but in a subtle way, the void is more powerful than the conversations.
Gerwig turns in a great performance that manages to play Frances for a failure without making her seem desperate. Her only goal is to be happy, and that means being close to Sophie. The comedy derives from this and paints everyone as vulnerable. The chemistry that she shares with Sumner is also fantastic and almost feels too established. At points in the film, each of them make bad decisions all in the name of maturity. While it is regressive to think that it means these two haven’t evolved, it should be taken more as a reflection of being young and dealing with powers outside of your control.
The supporting cast also has some standout performances. The most notable is Michael Zegen as Benji. He is Frances’ roommate and closest to a best friend for most of the film. His passion of writing a third Gremlins film and labeling Frances as “undateable” are endearing trademarks that provide the film with some much needed humor. He may seem as aimless as Frances, but his existences helps to fill the film with a sense of positive attitude otherwise ignored by Frances’ failure. Even though everyone in this film occasionally comes across as pretentious, these are mostly secondary to brilliant conversation moments. The film succeeds when everyone is sitting around and catching up on life. The subtle in-jokes not privy to the audience only help to make this feel more authentic.
If there is one aspect that feels troublesome, it is the soundtrack. Shot in black and white, it already feels like a modern take on Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The city is created as this beautiful landscape while Georges Delerue plays over montages of trips around the city. It looks gorgeous, but at times forced. It tries to provide class while actually making them seem false. The musical cues don’t feel to have any connection to the characters for most of the film. It does little to distinguish itself from every other art house film. It isn’t until the second half when a soundtrack that includes T. Rex and Hot Chocolate are used that the tone feels synced with the characters. David Bowie’s “Modern Love” serves as a recurring anthem, used to trumpet in moments of triumph for Frances as she finds clarity in her life.
Frances Ha works not as a full narrative, but small snippets of one character’s life. The film’s choice to travel around the country creates a road trip feeling. However, the film rarely feels scenic, as most scenes happen indoors. It occasionally feels like Frances is a stalker, which only makes her charades seem bizarre. But the film works because it connects on the core connection of two individuals. This is a story of how to stay in contact with despite long distances. It is one of the year’s most poignant, simply told stories of how relationships work in the 21st century. They may be sloppy and at times frustrating, but as long as computer exists, they won’t truly be gone. Frances Ha manages to be poignant without blatantly saying it, and that may be its biggest achievement.