Frances Ha

Frances Ha ★★★½

After fifteen years of making increasingly acerbic and bleakly confrontational films about human relations, a change in Noah Baumbach's personal life has seemingly placed him on a new, more loose and rambunctious path. He and wife Jennifer Jason Leigh divorced in 2010 and his new relationship with Greta Gerwig found them collaborating on the screenplay for his new film Frances Ha. Gerwig previously starred in Greenberg, Baumbach's last picture with Leigh, and here she takes center stage as Frances Haliday, a young dancer living in New York who is just trying to get by while retaining her sense of self despite everyone moving around her.

You can instantly feel a sense of youth restored in Baumbach's work through his collaboration with Gerwig as the film starts off with a rapidly cut representation of Frances' daily life with roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), giving us an idea of their incredibly close relationship that's described by the characters as a marriage where they don't have sex anymore. With scenes such as the one where Frances dances merrily through the streets of New York set to David Bowie's "Modern Love" (just one of many excellent tracks on display), Frances Ha is such a breath of fresh air not only in Baumbach's career but in independent filmmaking in general. Shot on the fly and as low-key as possible on the actual New York City streets, the film feels like something of a vintage piece, aided no doubt by the fact that the director shot in black and white.

Yet despite the old school filmmaking, Frances Ha is a very insightful portrait of the modern American in their late-20s, part of a new generation of artists trying to keep their unique personality without conforming to societal norms. Frances aspires to be a dancer and to live with her best friend and not let anything change outside of that, but when forces out of her control begin to shape her future in different ways she is confronted with a kind of post-coming-of-age struggle that feels incredibly accurate to the situation many her age are currently experiencing. Frances Ha opens the gates to Baumbach's sense of whimsy, without ever betraying his knack for sharp wit and pointed observations on human behavior.

Perhaps the thing I've always admired most about his work is the fact that he never places his central characters on a pedestal, as many films have a tendency to do. Usually we see the perfect protagonist being presented with obstacles from the supporting characters, but for Baumbach his leads are just as flawed and human as anyone else in the piece. This could (and sometimes does) create for films that make it hard to really invest in any characters or have much concern for their situations, but it's a far more accurate representation of the way the world works and he makes sure to keep that in tact in the way that Frances is portrayed. She's got plenty of annoying personality traits and character flaws, but Gerwig delivers a performance so loose and well-suited to the character that it was hard for me to not want to root for her to get what she wanted. That's not the way the world works though, which Frances slowly learns over the course of the film and through it all Baumbach doesn't betray the reality of her situation. You shouldn't take a weekend trip to Paris when you can't even afford to pay your rent.

I saw a lot of reviews cite Frances Ha as a kind of big-screen version of Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls and while I can understand the desire to make that comparison just from that core observational study of the 20s New York artistic girl getting by, for me this felt much more like Wes Anderson by way of Woody Allen. It had the former's rhythm and pointed diction, delivered effortlessly by a strong ensemble of actors headed by a marvelous lead, with the latter's filmmaking style down pat. Out of everything in Baumbach's canon it's certainly the one most removed from his usual routine and as far as I'm concerned it may just be his best yet.

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