The trouble with Frances

Greta Gerwig shines and infuriates in Frances Ha.

Everyone knows a Frances, a person unmoored by the ordinary concerns of love, work and housing, who careens through life in a haze of self-obsession, ricocheting from one crisis to another with only their mistakes as propellant. These people are normally obnoxious to be around, but the title character of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha manages to carve out an exception. Yes, Frances (as played by the effervescent indie darling Greta Gerwig) will try your nerves and leave you exhausted by the breadth of her irresponsibility, but she’s not beyond hope, and personal growth is only a few good decisions away.

Frances Ha is many things: a character study of a modern millennial adrift in the big city, a loving tribute to the films of the French New Wave, a celebration of female friendship (which, as presented here, seems somewhat more intense than the male variety I’m accustomed to). The movie is often funny or poignant, but it’s also maddening in that it allows a character we genuinely like to repeatedly act like a moron. Baumbach specializes in stories about frustrating characters (Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding), but here he tempers his instincts a touch and delivers a movie that will satisfy his art house fans while attracting some of the date movie crowd.

When we first meet Frances she’s living with her platonic soulmate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). The pair are emphatically not gay, though they’re self-aware enough to know that the world sometimes views them as such. When Frances’ boyfriend suggests she move in with him, she drives the guy away by saying she’d rather stick out her lease with Sophie. Soon after, however, Sophie announces she’s moving into a nicer apartment in Tribeca (a zip code that’s out of Frances’ financial reach). It won’t be the last time that Frances makes a rash or dumb decision with Sophie in mind, only to have it bite her in the ass.

Frances ends up the third roommate in an apartment occupied by rich kid artists Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), with the latter dubbing her “undateable” while also serving as an emotional replacement for Sophie. After that interlude, she moves into a spare room with a six-week expiration date. “Five weeks,” her less-than-enthusiastic new roomie corrects her. Frances is a dancer, earning praise from the director (Charlotte d’Amboise) of the troupe where she works as a stand-in, but never actually ascending to become part of the company. With no consistent work, finding steady housing seems like an insurmountable obstacle.

Frances’ problems are always of her own making, usually driven by powerful emotional outbursts caused by learning some new detail about Sophie. When she finds out that Sophie is engaged to her rich boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger) she gets a new credit card and heads to Paris for the weekend. Ugh. Self-destruction finally leads to a rebirth, but only after Frances essentially starts over after landing back at college in a new and humbling capacity.

Frances Ha works because Gerwig creates a three-dimensional character, one that's smart but irrational, talented but green, and rash when she should be contemplative. In other words, she’s just like plenty of 20-somethings trying desperately to find themselves. She’s also completely believable in every scene, and a genuine joy to watch. Gerwig co-wrote the film with Baumbach (the two are now an item, the knowledge of which adding an extra level of fascination while watching the movie), and the duo creates a compelling portrait of burgeoning adulthood that views the assorted tribulations with a sympathetic eye. I could easily relate.

Frances Ha is also a beautiful movie to look at, the picture and editing hearkening back to French New Wave cinema of the 1960s. In this time of 3D Technicolor everything, the stark look is refreshing. As is Gerwig, an actress who has now fully found herself as a performer and creative force. I look forward to seeing where she takes us next.

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