Some movies are born at risk of becoming hate magnets—attracting enmity even sight unseen from people who resent and probably envy their unbridled personalities. Frances Ha is a movie like that: just alive enough to invite pre-emptive attack on the grounds that we can do without another portrait of privileged dithering, thank you very much. (As if going to the movies isn’t itself a kind of privileged dithering.) The irony is that director Noah Baumbach historically has seemed hostile to twee indie fluff himself, preferring a very dark comedy of misanthropy. (His previous films include The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding.) Well, now he’s in a good mood, and fair enough if people aren’t sure what to make of it.
A visually pithy victory of bittersweetness over cynicism, and therefore arguably a career highlight for Baumbach, Frances Ha shows with keen humor and without self-pity what it’s like right now to be alive and in one’s 20s and in New York and aware of one’s potential slipping away. It also records many finely observed details of intimate female friendship. Greta Gerwig stars as the eponymous Frances, an aspiring dancer whose signature move might be flightiness and whose slow drift toward true adulthood might also be away from her best friend Sophie, played by Mickey Sumner. That’s the basic story stuff, but the allure of Frances Ha is less a function of what happens than of how it’s observed, and how it feels to the observer.
Shot in sumptuous black-and-white, this subtly romanticized slice of life amounts to a minimal assembly of improbably resonant nonevents, almost unthinkable as a film without the specific virtue of Gerwig’s daffy, guileless poise. Otherwise, Baumbach’s style could be called homage-happy: It’s classic Truffaut meets vintage Woody Allen meets Girls, with one direct lift—an exhilarating, freewheeling David Bowie-scored street dance—from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. What’s key is how playfully at ease Baumbach seems among his many tasteful influences, including obvious muse Gerwig, here his co-writer, real-life romantic partner, and vital spark. It’s as if his most essential reason for making this film at all was to capture and pay tribute to a developing infatuation.
This approach is not unprecedented, movie-history-wise. Nor is it without its risks, hate magnetism being only one of several. With material so personal, freshness is impermanent—that’s why it works, and also why it’s bittersweet. This review will not be the first or the last to note that before being romantically and creatively involved with Gerwig, Baumbach was romantically and creatively involved with Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote his 2010 film Greenberg, in which Gerwig co-starred. It’s sort of awful but also sort of irresistible to wonder if in a few years he’ll be dating and writing movies with Mickey Sumner. (As Gerwig seemed slightly underserved by Greenberg, so Sumner does here, but maybe that just shows Baumbach’s talent for casting people whose charisma demands unequivocal leading roles.)
Anyway, Frances Ha begins with Sophie and Frances as roommates. Soon enough, Sophie moves out and moves on with her life. Frances flounders. The dancing might not be working out. The alternatives seem scarce. The city is lovely but also difficult. As to the question of privilege, Frances’ frequent problem is that she has less of it than those around her. She tries a spontaneous jaunt to Paris, with mixed results. She comes home to Sacramento (Gerwig’s actual hometown), and hangs out with her parents (Gerwig’s actual parents). It’s an idyll, of sorts, but no solution. There’s wonderful stuff here, for those who can recognize it. A poignant close-up of her saying goodbye from an airport escalator is one of the great shots of the decade.
Inspired by Gerwig’s spontaneity, and scripted to cultivate it, the movie does turn up some occasional stilted line readings here and there, but periodic awkwardness also is shrewdly elemental to its charm. “I’m so embarrassed,” Frances confides at one point. “I’m not a real person yet.” True: She’s a movie character, of just the sort we hope to encounter more often in life.