Frances Ha is the tale of Frances (Greta Gerwig), a 27 year old who has drifted through life and isn’t really sure who she is. However, she’s getting to a point in her life when things are beginning to change – not least her friendship with her flatmate, Sophy (Mickey Sumner). When Sophy decides to move in with another friend, it sets about a period of self-discovery and we’re fortunate enough to be along for the ride.
Noah Baumbach started directing back in the mid-90s, his first feature was Kicking and Screaming. He directed another two forgettable films and then disappeared from filmmaking altogether. He resurfaced in 2000 with a short film, but it would be another five years until Baumbach directed The Squid and The Whale – a somewhat biographical tale of a couple getting a divorce and its effect upon their very bourgeois, New York family. It is a brilliantly pretentious film but it is also funny, witty and there’s a certain charm to all of the characters – they might be preening fools but their flaws also make them human.
Baumbach followed that up with Margot at the Wedding and then Greenberg. The former was uninspired, the latter, well, it was a marked improvement but neither felt like Baumbach was developing as a director.
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Working with the star of Greenberg, Greta Gerwig – who not only stars, but also co-wrote the screenplay – has clearly rejuvenated Baumbach. Frances Ha is a fresh start, it’s Baumbach confidently shaking himself-off and wiping the slate clean. But, for all of Baumbach’s deft filmmaking abilities on display, it is Gerwig’s star that shines the brightest.
The character of Frances is breath taking; she’s nauseating, irritating, awkward, funny, and naïve, and she’s often painful to watch. However, Frances is that rare thing in American cinema, a female protagonist as fully rounded as any of her male contemporaries.
The male characters here are the window-dressing, yes, their dialogue is well written and they serve a function, but Frances isn’t pre-occupied with ‘finding a man’, in actual fact she’s more interested in preserving her friendship with her best friend, who she fears she’s losing – albeit because of a man.
When the film does hint at a possible romantic avenue – and I do mean hint – it does so beautifully, it appears that it will occur slowly, naturally, off-screen and out of friendship and mutual respect – not simply lust. Gerwig deserves all the praise she has received for Frances, not only for the performance but also for her abilities as a scriptwriter. There are few female cinematic characters with Frances’ depth or complexity, those are characteristics typically saved for male protagonists. If Frances were to have a female contemporary, then I can only think of one – and she quit staking vampires and kicking ass sometime ago.
Frances Ha features stunning cinematography and also some excellent use of pop music from David Bowie and Hot Chocolate, but the real star is Gerwig, or rather Frances; few films can match the kinetic verve of their characters – even fewer can muster precisely that – but Frances Ha, achieves both.