Twentysomething drifts aimlessly, tries to figure out what to do with his or her life. That one-line summary is practically its own genre in independent filmmaking, and while plenty of movies dealing with the subject have been just fine, the sub-par entries that clog festival schedules make it hard for the truly special ones to be heard over the mumbling hipster roar.
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig must have known that when they decided to collaborate on Frances Ha, especially since several movies of this sort have had their names on them (mostly separately, though Gerwig starred in Baumbach's Greenberg). But they've risen to the occasion. Smartly written, expertly acted and gorgeously filmed (in sumptuous black and white), Frances Ha could be the post-college-angst comedy of the '10s. This is what happens when Mumblecore grows up and turns into a real movie.
Gerwig, who wrote the screenplay with director Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding), brings her considerable everyday charm to the role of Frances, a 27-year-old Brooklyn girl living a carefree bohemian lifestyle with her roommate and BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Sophie works in publishing, while Frances ekes out a living as an apprentice and junior instructor at a dance company. When asked how they know each other, Frances' stock reply is, "We went to college together, and we're the same person." As far as Frances is concerned, this state of prolonged adolescence -- of cigarettes on the fire escape, of play-fighting in the park, of skipping around town like characters in a French New Wave film -- could go on indefinitely.
But this is not to be, as you may have surmised. Sophie's changing circumstances require a move to Tribeca, and the BFFs are no longer roommates. Thrust from her cozy nest before she was ready to fly, Frances struggles -- in that low-stakes, not-life-or-death way that people her age and demographic "struggle" in the big city -- to find her place, both literally and metaphorically. She becomes a roommate to fedora-wearing Lev (Adam Driver) and spec-script-writing Benji (Michael Zegen), trust-funded kids in their early 20s who can afford to lounge around all weekend drinking, watching movies and being young.
When that arrangement doesn't work anymore because of Frances' declining financial situation, she crashes with a fellow dancer (Grace Gummer), a serious woman whose disinterest in nonsense makes her a poor substitute for Sophie, who has become more involved with her boyfriend (Patrick Heusinger). Frances pays a visit to her parents in Sacramento. Then she tries something else. Then something else. And so on.
This sounds like a shambling, low-budget kind of movie, the sort that uses handheld cameras and has semi-improvised, naturalistic dialogue spoken by actors who are friends of the director's. In terms of story and characters, it is that kind of movie. But instead of a rough, do-it-yourself look, Frances Ha is polished and steady, artfully shot and smoothly edited, with a screenplay that's loose and funny -- it's alive with crackling, quotable dialogue -- while still being structured and purposeful.
I can scarcely say enough about Greta Gerwig's perfectly enchanting lead performance. I was worried at first that Frances was going to be the most manic of pixie dream girls, flitting from one frivolous endeavor to another without consequence. But those fears faded in about five minutes: the movie's point is actually the exact opposite. Frances is lovable and effervescent, but she needs to get her act together. The movie is about her painful process of figuring out how to become a functioning adult without losing her Francesness.
As director, Baumbach deserves credit for creating an evocative cinematic version of the "New York in your 20s" subculture that feels strikingly familiar even if you never lived in New York in your 20s. The reluctance to grow up; the feeling of betrayal as friends grow up ahead of you; the desire to live on irony and fun and being frustrated by the need to pay the bills: none of this is new in movies, of course. But Baumbach and Gerwig give it a graceful and poignantly funny new feel.
4.5 out of 5 stars