Clumsy, likable 'Frances Ha' is an offbeat charmer
05:02 AM, May 17, 2013
In Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig’s title character is like a smarter, human version of a stubborn golden retriever.
She can be clumsy and clueless, but there’s this endearingly likable quality and a disarming innocence. She even grins like an enthusiastic shaggy dog.
Quirky, in the best possible way, Frances Ha ( * * * ½ out of four; rated R, opening Friday in select cities) is a witty and emotionally resonant portrait of growing up while retaining the exuberance of youth.
We can’t help but root for Frances, though the Ha (short for Halliday) often seems as if it could stand for “hapless.”
Frances is a 27-year-old Vassar graduate, and her adult life has yet to begin. When the movie opens, Frances is living contentedly with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her best friend since college. So far, their bond has outlasted any romantic relationships either has had with men.
“We’re the same person,” Frances insists. But Sophie has a good job and decides to move forward with her life, while Frances remains in stasis. When Sophie announces she’s moving out, Frances opts for denial. Oblivious to Sophie’s quietly mounting discontent, Frances clings to her version of their stalwart friendship.
She’s in a similarly precarious state career-wise. An apprentice modern dancer who can’t really dance, she doggedly refuses to give up her dream.
Frances leads a peripatetic existence, shuffling from one friend’s apartment to another. She may move around, but she can’t seem to go forward.
“I’m not a real person yet,” she confesses when asked for her non-existent credit card.
This is an unusual love story, between two friends, as seen through Frances’ eyes. She adores Sophie and Sophie loves her, too, but needs to put distance between them as she pursues a relationship with a new boyfriend.
Co-writer Gerwig and director/writer Noah Baumbach make this emotionally layered tale of arrested development fresh, playful and a touch wistful.
Frances is an authentic character in a recognizable time and place contemporary New York. It’s Baumbach’s best film since 2006’s The Squid and The Whale; stylistically he’s influenced by early Woody Allen and Francois Truffaut.
Evocatively shot in black and white, it’s like Manhattan for millennials, with a musical score that includes vintage David Bowie.
Gerwig is a major talent. She broke out of the world of ultra low-budget indie films with 2010’s Greenberg, her first teaming with director Baumbach. Never straining for a joke, she’s effortlessly funny. Gerwig’s delivery is so natural and offbeat that it often seems improvised rather than scripted.
There are some lovely scenes with her parents, whom Frances visits at her childhood home in Sacramento. You can see the yearning for a simpler time on her face as she boards an airport escalator and looks back to wave goodbye. They love her unconditionally and that’s the foundation upon which she functions.
Gerwig makes Frances a thoroughly distinctive character, composed of telling details. Scattered and sometimes self-defeating, she blurts out thoughts at inappropriate times, though comically.
“Don’t treat me like a three-hour brunch friend,” Frances snaps at Sophie.
But she’s also irresistible in her capacity for joy. When asked, she jumps up and dances, rather clunkily, but with evident pleasure. She adores her best friend and overlooks her self-absorption to help her in a moment of need. Most of all, she’s persistent. She stumbles, rather frequently and takes little notice, soldiering on.
Frances Ha is like a hipster Phoenix, rising consistently in a thrift store wardrobe from the ashes.