Frances Ha is director Noah Baumbach’s seventh feature, but its eighty-six minutes of run-time radiate with the nervous energy of a debut. Beginning in 1995 with his first feature, Kicking and Screaming (not the one in which Will Ferrell coaches little-league soccer), Baumbach’s films have consistently charted the (often-charted) waters of white, upper middle class, heterosexual, and vaguely artistic post-collegiate life. His world is the darker, ragged flipside to Wes Anderson’s brand of quirky, twee confection, populated by characters riddled with insecurity, frustration, and the sometimes-not-so-secret conviction of their own superiority. To call the title characters of Margot at the Wedding or Greenberg “unlikeable” is both an understatement and a waste of effort, since they are so abrasively and deliberately damaged.
Greenberg—in which Greta Gerwig plays a personal assistant named Florence who is inexplicably attracted to the self-centered, mangy-haired, forty-one year-old teenager of a title character—was a rock bottom of sorts, but a rock bottom that suggested its own way back up. Gerwig was the best thing about Greenberg, a fact clearly not lost on Baumbach. As the co-writer and star of Frances Ha, Gerwig has more screen time and more of a voice. Her Frances is nominally similar to many of Baumbach’s other protagonists, but there’s an irrepressible lightness to her. Frances never takes herself too seriously—and Gerwig and Baumbach never ask us to, either.
After flirting with (somewhat) higher budgets and more recognizable stars in his past few films, Baumbach seems to have modestly scaled his back his latest production. Shot in Manhattan-esque black and white on a Canon 5D and barely publicized before the start of its festival run earlier this year, Frances Ha has the feel of a particularly self-assured student film—steeped in cinematic history, but eager to tell a familiar story as if it has never been told before. And maybe it hasn’t.
Frances is a twenty-seven year-old apprentice in a modern dance company in New York City. In the first few minutes of the movie, we see her living with her best friend, roommate and platonic soulmate Sophie as if they are the only two people in New York City and they’re on an everlasting summer vacation. In the briskly paced, vignette-like series of scenes to follow, this comfortable bubble bursts and Frances finds herself adrift—unemployed, lonely and rootless. Sophie moves to a more expensive apartment and eventually to Japan with her Wall Street fiancé, leaving Frances on her own to navigate the sometimes harsh realities of life in one’s twenties.
Frances doesn’t develop a drug problem, fall in love, or lose her grip on reality. She does change her address a few times, embarrass herself at formal dinners, and go on the most touchingly misguided weekend getaway to Paris ever captured on film. As Gerwig is quick to point out in interviews, Frances Ha is not a romantic comedy. Or, as she puts it: “There’s no kissing.” The solution to Frances’s problems—if they even are problems—isn’t a question of finding the right man, or even the right job. It’s a question of adjusting to time, of learning when to slow down and when to speed up—or, to put it more simply—of getting her shit together.
Because of its setting and subject matter, Frances Ha has been drawing inevitable comparisons to the TV show Girls. I found myself thinking more often of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, a very different New York story that, like Frances Ha, is composed of wide-screen, black and white, quietly magical vignettes in which very little seems to happen—but it often seems as if anything could. Frances Ha displays none of the self-conscious social posturing of Girls, nor does it make any pretense of speaking for a generation. Overflowing with stylistic nods to Woody Allen and the French New Wave as it is, I hesitate to weigh it down with more comparisons or attempt to fit it into some preconceived cinematic lineage. For all Baumbach and Gerwig’s meticulous craft, they’ve made a film that feels spontaneous and unstudied.
At one point in the movie, Frances races down block after block of sidewalks and crosswalks, turning and leaping as she listens to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” through her headphones. She bursts into her empty apartment and slips the headphones off, and a sudden, dampening silence falls. This is the kind of mysteriously impactful and absolutely mundane moment one experiences many times on any given day but can never quite recreate or explain—but which Gerwig and Baumbach have somehow conveyed in Frances Ha. Their creative pairing has resulted in a film that is sweet but never naïve, nostalgic but of-the-moment, familiar but individual. I only hope that, however many more films they make together, they can stay so young at heart.