Friday, November 15, 2013

Review: Frances Ha

Frances Ha
US, 2012
Co-written (with Greta Gerwig) and directed by Noah Baumbach

Even at his best, Noah Baumbach is a polarizing filmmaker. People tend to either take to his depictions of drifting artsy middle-class white folks, or really take against them. Some of this rancor comes from the perceived meanness and cynicism of his scripts (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg), and some from the insularity and privilege of the groups he depicts. Frances Ha will do little to ameliorate complaints about the latter issue, bu it may help with the former; though far from wholly cheerful, it seems to accept its characters at face value and takes some pleasure in bouncing them off of each other.

Yet, as a fan of most Baumbach films (even the withering Margot) and a big supporter of co-writer/star Greta Gerwig, I was surprised by how cold Frances Ha left me. Part of that is certainly my own fault—I seem to have an innate loathing for stories about the artistic and interpersonal lives of young, contemporary Brooklyn residents—and part of it comes from the intentionally uncomfortable nature of the film's subject. A coming-of-age tale where that age is pushed back to suit the Millennial generation's arrested development, Frances Ha is about the ways we delay adulthood by pursuing self-discovery in everything and everyone but ourselves. It's a similar dynamic to that found in Baumbach's earlier, male-centered Kicking and Screaming—that film's lead, Josh Hamilton, even shows up in a small role—but here it's played straighter, sadder, and, to me, more wearyingly.

Frances (Gerwig) is a 27-year-old dancer, still toiling away as an apprentice despite her age, who lives in a symbiotic relationship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her best friend from college. Frances says that they are "the same person, but we have different hair," and they live a frivolous, silly life together, a life Frances is so hesitant to leave that she allows it to torpedo a serious relationship. But soon, Sophie decides to move out to live in a more desirable neighborhood, and Frances can't afford to stay alone, so she's set adrift both in terms of where to live and who to live like. Forced to finally transition from her early-20s to her late-20s, she moors her hopes to various other people in her social circle, including trust fund artist Lev (a nicely subdued Adam Driver from Girls, which feels like a spiritual cousin to this), her boss (Charlotte D'Amboise), and a more successful fellow dancer (Grace Gummer), but quickly hits snags and obstacles with each.

Baumbach and cinematographer Sam Levy capture Frances's ups and downs in a jaunty black and white, reminiscent of Manhattan or films from the French New Wave, whose music Baumbach also borrows (Annie Baker's essay at the Criterion Collection touches on these New Wave tics in greater depth). Her behavior matches some of the more manic heroines of the New Wave, as well, but where their behavior seemed free-spirited in the '60s, Frances's comes across as juvenile in the 2010's. In one dinner party scene, her naive, self-indulgent babbling makes her into a sort of cute curiosity, almost like a kid sitting at the grown-ups' table—though, in fairness, the "grown-ups" are also self-indulgent in their way. The film at least partially redeems Frances by pegging some of her behavior as a defense mechanism against the reality of her situation, undercutting her cheerful quirks with a layer of sadness and anxiety. Still, as winning as Gerwig is—and she WILL win you over—even she can't fully overcome the difficulty of the character as written.

On the level of a film about growing to accept our limitations and take chances that seem like settling (though, really, all we're "settling" for is reality over unattainable fantasy), Frances Ha works. This seems to be an increasingly difficult lesson for young people to learn, if you listen to the number of browbeating articles about Millenials, but one the post-downturn world is continuing to beat into them. My issue is that I never felt sure whether we're meant to be amused by the characters' antics, or to scoff at them, and I was never comfortable doing either. The film's refusal to stick to a normal narrative pattern is refreshing, especially considering how much of the film is about the narratives we attempt to create for our own lives. Frances Ha depicts maturation more realistically than most movies where people don't so much come into themselves as become someone else. Even as she becomes less self-absorbed and more self-reliant, Frances's core remains the same through all of her misadventures. Unfortunately, that means she's still an irritating person in an irritating world, so if you can't get past that, you'll probably never get on the film's wavelength.

Though it is a Criterion release, Frances Ha is currently NOT on HuluPlus like most of its Criterion family. It IS streaming on Netflix, so feel free to check it out there and see if its quirkiness does more for you than it did for me.

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