The story of a hopelessly undateable young woman on her way out of her twenties, Frances Ha embodies a strange combination of Woody Allen neuroses, Seinfeld plot points, and a whole lot of heart to create what was an excellent opener to the festival, for me. Noah Baumbach (Greenberg and The Squid and the Whale) alongside fellow scribe, and star, Greta Gerwig (Lola Versus and Damsels in Distress) have created a warm, depressing, and enriching story about losing it all to find yourself.
Frances, a struggling dancer, lives in Brooklin with her best friend and hetero life mate Sophie (Mickey Sumner.) After first painfully (and convolutedly) breaking up with her long-time boyfriend over moving in together, and a pair of unwanted hairless cats, Sophie decides to move out. Hopping from apartment to apartment, she manages to lose her job, Sophie, her way, and herself. This is a story about hitting bottom. Still healthy, but desperately poor for a young adult in New York, her preconceived notions of life have been shattered.
To start with, this is a superbly written script. Full of excellent dialogue and quippy one liners (“‘Ahoy, sexy?’ Am I nautically sensual?”) you’ll be in stitches one minute, and on the verge of tears the next. Making a fool of herself as a guest at a dinner party, Frances repeatedly shoves her foot in her mouth, mortifying the audience with her verbal carelessness. Then, in a fleeting moment she shines, drunkenly divulging what she’s always wanted of love and life. Poetic and moving, she stuns everyone in the room. Then, quick as she’d begun, she snaps back to reality as if nothing had happened. Simply and clumsily she reasserts her awkwardness, and balance is restored to the universe.
Gerwig and Baumbach have managed to create a mortifyingly clumsy character who is so endearing you can’t help but root for her while she trips and falls flat on her face (literally, figuratively, and repeatedly.) Gerwig truly seems at home in the role of loveable misfit, and may very well have the market cornered on the niche.
Its accessibility and relatability is what makes this film so wonderful. Gerwig is such a natural here – you forget she’s portraying a character. A member of the audience after the screening actually addressed a question to Frances, instead of Greta. Granted, they could have just been moronic, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. For now.
She manages to convey honest emotion uninhibitedly, which is a rare gift. Her love for Sophie is charming and moving, and their chemistry on screen is astounding. You feel for her when they grow distant, and their friendship wanes. When the rest of the world seems to be up to date with Sophie’s life while Frances is left in the dark, forgotten, you ache as she does. She breaks my heart every time she’s on screen, and I adore her for that.
Drawing on elements of the French New Wave, with much of the visual style from Allen’s Manhattan (though I’d suggest with more artistic prowess – the depth of field is really wonderful,) Baumbach’s influences seem clear. However, as he revealed in the Q & A that followed yesterday’s screening, he’s found himself so immersed in films of the New Wave, and those of Allen, that he can no longer tell when he’s making a conscious or unconscious reference to their works. The style’s become effortless, and a natural go-to.
From a personal standpoint, this film is very important to me. It’s quite timely. Granted I’m not nearing 30, I’m not even 25 yet, however, watching her aimlessness hit home. Not knowing where you’re going or where you’ve come from is a very disorienting feeling – it’s jarring and painful. By the end of the film I was brushing tears off of my face, trying so desperately to hide that it had struck me so emotionally. I was alone in a packed theater, and probably one of very few people tearing up – damn fucking skippy I was going to hide it! But when she wowed her hosts at the dinner party with her honest description of the love and life that she wants, I couldn’t control myself. She took the thoughts from my mind and the words from my mouth. Not that that’s particularly rare or exciting – I tend to think I’m less clichéd than I really am, but alas.
In the end, it’s Frances triumphant, getting her own place, finding a path, and starting to walk down it instead of fighting it. And, atypically for Baumbach, it ends well – happily and warmly, with a shocking skip in its step.
This post was originally published on my tumblr on September 9, 2012.