A film review by Craig J. Koban August 2, 2013 

RANK: #20


2013, R, 86 mins.


Greta Gerwig as Frances Halliday  /  Mickey Sumner as Sophie  /  Michael Zegen as Benji  /  Adam Driver as Lev

Directed by Noah Baumbach  /  Written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

Noah Baumbach’s FRANCES HA is an equal parts effervescently funny and sometimes gloomy examination of how the idealistic dreams of young people in their twenties living in the big city seem to be impeded by distressing social and financial realities.  

It’s also pretty spot-on in terms of showing the life of one post-college grad - cruising towards thirty - desperately striving, with alternating levels of success and failure, to both reinvent who she is while trying to cling to relationships that unavoidably are being driving apart by forces beyond one’s control.  Baumbach has demonstrated himself to be a real master of focusing on the darker underbelly of human relationships (see his searing divorce drama THE SQUID AND THE WHALE or GREENBERG, his brutally frank an uneasy portrait of a truly dislikeable middle class cretin), but FRANCES HA seems a bit more kind and gentle in focus.  

That’s not to say that Baumbach’s lead character here in his new film is without foibles.  Hardly.  Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig, also serving as co-writer) is anything but perfect and well adjusted.  She’s a sprightly 27-year-old Sacramento native that’s trying to – as she can – make a life for herself in Manhattan.  She’s a dancer by training, but she’s beginning to realize that she may be past her prime in her efforts to achieve her “big break.”  She does have ample pluck and an indomitable spirit of hope for the future, even when the harsh economic weight of living in a sprawling and expensive city with relatively no money is making her aspirations all the more difficult to attain.  Worse yet for poor Frances is that she tries to grasp on to – with almost an adolescent level of obsession - one friendship in particular that you just know will not consistently stay afloat.  Maybe that’s Frances’ real issue: she’s a kid trapped in an adult body.  “I’m so embarrassed,” she sheepishly admits at one point.  “I’m not a real person yet.” 



As the film opens, rather joyously, we see Frances and her BFF and roommate, Sophie (Mickey Summer) at the height of their platonic – and maybe beyond platonic – relationship.  The opening montage has a carefree whimsicality to it: We see the pair prance through their daily existence without much of a care in the world (“We are like a lesbian couple that does not have sex anymore,” Frances amusingly deadpans).  However, Frances is dealt with a personal blow to her happiness with Sophie when she decides to move in with a new roommate.  This means that the borderline poverty-stricken Frances has to fend for herself and seek out a new person to live with, seeing as rental life in the Big Apple for someone like her is a highly difficult one. 

More importantly, Sophie leaving Frances has forced her, perhaps against her own choosing, to learn how to grow up and cope with supporting herself without any outside aid.  Her initial journey in this respect is a semi-rocky one.  She does manage to find new roomies in Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), two Brooklynites who appear to have a far better station in life than Frances.  Initially, it seems that there may be romantic sparks between the aspiring SNL writer hipster Benji and Frances, but Gerwig and Baumbach’s script is refined and shrewdly drawn for how it sort of leads viewers on to think that this would be a possibility, only then to pull the rug out from under their feet and never really go down that road.  At one point Benji dubs her as “undateable” and the somewhat trivial zinger at her expense seems to dog her for the rest of the film.  He may have a point: Frances is so blissfully unaware of how socially awkward and uncoordinated she is at times that making serious connections with men proves to be nearly impossible. 

Maybe Frances' inability to emotionally part ways with Sophie is the issue.  Their relationship is a complex one, to be sure.  Sophie is successful and going places, whereas Frances is not, which consequently leaves her adhering to Sophie like Krazy Glue to stay afloat.  When Sophie leaves and then becomes involved with another man, Frances is left feeling an incalculable void to fill.  She’s in such a stare of perpetual arrested development that maturing and finding herself is daunting.  The greatness of the FRANCES HA is that Baumbach and Gerwig manage to simultaneously suggest a woman that deserves our simultaneous sympathy and scorn.  You feel for her when she feels let down by life, but nonetheless want to smack her upside the head to get her out of her own self-denial of easily being able to go places in life that she wants.  Oftentimes, Frances can’t succeed because, frankly, she really does not put much effort or work into achieving her seemingly unattainable dreams.  She’s not loathsomely selfish, but she does want things to conveniently go her way at the most inconvenient times. 

Gerwig brings such naturalness to all of her performances.  She’s deceptively and naturally pretty, but can also easily evoke – as she does here in the film - a kooky, well-meaning, but deeply flawed woman that has been beaten down by what she perceives as unmovable obstacles.  Frances is a real polarizing figure in the film: Too dark and somber of a portrayal would have made her too deplorable to stomach for 90 minutes, but too warm, bubbly, and joyously eccentric and Frances would have come off as unrealistically rendered.  Gerwig walks a deceptively difficult highwire performance act in the film by making Frances an oddly endearing, yet sometimes disagreeable creation, and it’s a testament to her skills as an actress that she is equal to the challenge of pulling it off. 

Baumbach and cinematographer Sam Levy intentionally, I think, paint the screen with a wonderfully evocative and grain-infused black and white look that echoes what Woody Allen did with MANHATTAN all those decades ago.  Framing the film with this aesthetic enriches the city that never sleeps in both a highly romanticized dreamworld that fuels Frances' hopes.  It’s no wonder that she believes that anything can happen in this city, and in a way FRANCES HA is almost kind of a beautifully rendered visual love ballad to the metropolis and all of its intoxicating environmental splendor.  Less entrancing, though, is the film's fractured and frequently haphazard nature with scenes and editing.  The movie will test patience in many filmgoers that require traditional plotting.  FRANCES HA has a very loose, improvisational, and staccato narrative momentum that, in some ways, reflects the main character's own lack of a plan.  If the film were to have a fault then I would say that it's story, like Frances herself, takes a bit of time to develop a purpose for being. 

Yet, FRANCES HA spoke to me, not because I’ve been to Manhattan – which I haven’t – and not because I am a lost girl in a big city – which I’m not, nor have ever been!  It spoke to me because I can recall a time in my mid-to-late twenties when I realized – gosh – that I really had to make something of myself as an adult in order to sustain myself and not further rely on others for financial and emotional support.  In the end, I think that the film is about the tense voyage of finally becoming an accountable and self-actualized grown-up.  Even in the film’s final scene – pitch perfectly rendered with a glorious final shot that explains the film’s title so ingeniously and simply – you gain a sense that Frances is finally learning this lesson.  Then again, she may always be a dumb kid at heart.  My favorite scene of any film from 2013 occurs early in FRANCES HA as we see the title character race and dance through the streets of Manhattan to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”  It perfectly encapsulates both the joys – and inescapable folly – of youthful exuberance and resolve.

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