Review: ‘Frances Ha,’ A Woman At Loose Ends in the Big City

Greta Gerwig and Adam Driver in 'Frances Ha' (IFC Films)
Greta Gerwig and Adam Driver in ‘Frances Ha’ (IFC Films)

Some kind of a beautiful mess, Frances Ha aims to reflect the chaotic existence of its 27-year-old titular character, a flighty woman who is at a turning point of her life and is doing everything within her power to ignore it.

Frances, played by Greta Gerwig with all the informed mannerisms that might be expected of someone who co-wrote the screenplay, is a dancer whose career has hit a dead end, good enough to nab an apprenticeship at a dance company, but not good enough to secure steady work. She has been bolstered in her creative aspirations for years by her best friend and roommate Sophia (Mickey Sumner), with whom she has a very intimate, if platonic, relationship, but Frances’ life starts to spin out of control when Sophia announces on short notice that she’ll be moving out of their apartment.

That sets Frances searching, somewhat desperately, for new digs, and she embarks on a series of short-term accommodation misadventures, endeavoring to regain her balance while baffling new acquaintances with her pattern of speech — random riffs about being and nothingness that often veer into insensitive and possibly inappropriate subjects — and somewhat overbearing manner. Frances is not a bad person, per se, but she is somewhat odd, and her behavior and motives are difficult to pin down. She’s not the self-analytical sort, apparently; despite her plaintive refrain that she’s “undatable,” she’s not terribly interested in taking responsibility for her actions or even taking stock of her situation. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali, she floats like a butterfly, but stings not at all.

Director and co-writer Noah Baumbach constructs the film from Frances’ point of view, as though she is living in a bubble, pushed along hither and yon by the vagaries of life. When good luck comes her way, she rejoices, joyously dashing through the streets of Manhattan to the bouncing rhythms of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” When things turn a bit sour, she dumps the memories in the trash bin and blithely swims on to the next buoy, still pining for the warm comforts and reassurances of her sweet, sweet platonic lover / enabler Sophie.

The poisonous rancor that has been a hallmark of Baumbach’s recent pictures — The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg — has been wiped almost entirely clean, perhaps a result of his collaboration with Gerwig. Yet it also harks back to his earlier films Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy in the muddled confusion of its leading characters, while simultaneously displaying a similar generosity of spirit as found in Baumbach’s collaborations with Wes Anderson on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Indeed, despite the frequent frustration of Frances’ erratic actions, the film maintains a genial atmosphere, a hopeful optimism that is also a manifestation of Frances’ sunny personality. She’s a wild child in the city, and if she can just learn to look both ways before crossing the street, she might just make it after all.

Baumbach decided that the photography should be black and white, and Sam Levy has done a splendid job of shooting it; it reinforces Frances’ reductive outlook on life. Gerwig easily holds attention as the star of the film, supported ably by the rest of the cast, which includes Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, and Michael Esper as some of the men in her life, and Charlotte d’Ambroise and Grace Gummer as the dance company chief and a fellow dancer, respectively.

Frances Ha opens in limited release in the Metroplex on Friday, May 24.

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