Sunday, May 19, 2013

Frances Ha

"27 is old though," so says a friend to Frances (Greta Gerwig) in the new comedy Frances Ha, the gorgeous, generous and utterly beguiling new film from director Noah Baumbach.  The comment isn't said out of cruelty or resentment, it's uttered as an off the cuff observation of which both is and isn't true in itself, but it does unsettle Frances in it's brash honesty and bequeath an aura of reflection.  Frances is an aspiring dancer living in New York City who hops from apartment to apartment because she has none to call her own.  She has troubles with money and no actual job nor stable romantic relationship.  She has her friends, her intellect and the hopefulness that many young people lie to themselves (and others) about in keeping on, especially when that means pursuing something creative.  She is somewhat a symbol of twenty-something complacency-- a subset of a hyper literate, somewhat arrogant and entitled, irony infused generation sorting out and coming to terms with the messiness of adulthood.  It would be wrong to describe Frances Ha as a coming of age tale of a hipster gal getting finally her shit together, because the film, in all its quirky dalliances, rings truth in the romanticized notion of growing into, as Frances might put, a "real" person, if not quite a successful one.

In actuality, most of the film is a series of vignettes of the trouble Frances gets herself into and how the she digs herself deeper into a hole of failures and embarrassments.  That sounds about right coming from the acidic and puckish intellectualism that makes up the structural DNA of Mr. Baumbach's filmography (The Squid & the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg), but the wonder and joy of Frances Ha comes from its warmth, wit and generous spirit.  It's an optimistic and genuinely warm-hearted confection of real life trials and tribulations spun into a vacuum that looks and feels like a French New Wave comedy remade as a 1970s-era Woody Allen film.  Gerwig co-scripted Frances Ha with Baumbach and from all appearances the relationship has opened something special in both of them.

Shot in charming black and white by Sam Levy, Frances Ha may strike firstly as Manhattan for the new millennium, and surely the glow and wonder of the city plays a character in the film itself.  Especially since the film is divided not by seasons or something of that ilk, but instead by the various apartments Frances lives in throughout the film-- there's even title cards that appear with actual street names, and the burroughs and adjacent playgrounds for Frances add an ironic and wistful playfulness to the film.  The film opens in somewhat harmony as Frances lives with best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner aka Sting's daughter who makes a bewitching presence.)  The two, which Frances dubs "the same" drink and sneak cigs out their windows and entertain with one another with the story of them, in which Sophie becomes a huge literary publishing icon and Frances a world famous dancer.  I believe all generations can relate to such liquor-infused dialogues between pals.  The two are a sort of odd couple of sorts but even in their playful eccentricity (Frances is charmed by the notion that others believe they are in a long term, sexless lesbian romance), there's an honesty and novel truth to their friendship, the kind of which that can only bloom and become eternal with the shared twenty-something failures.

Frances' world turns on when Sophie moves in with her boyfriend and cuddly play fighting turns real.  There's always that silly belief that certain blissful and seemingly cosmic friendships can never be disturbed, not even by the realities of growing up.  Frances (her last name is decidedly not Ha-- that is decided by charming final shot), ever quick on her feet, moves in with two male buddies-- Benji (Michael Zegen) and Lev (Girls' Adam Driver)-- in a pricy three bedroom apartment.  Again money becomes an issue-- this is a young woman who is clamors with excitement when a tax rebate arrives in the mail and gives her an opportunity to invite a boy to a real dinner (of which leads to comical blunder)-- and Frances continues her mooching.  This includes a holiday spent with parents in Sacramento, which surmises a lovely montage, and a quick weekend getaway to Paris (more destructive than romantic.)

Through it all, Frances Ha manages to never sway to the maudlin or depressing, even as Frances' opportunities seem to vanish from beneath her.  That's due to the strange and lovely gifts Gerwig invests into her singular character.  She's plays a dancer, but is not quite graceful, but utterly spirited.  She moves in an utterly balletic way however, whether teaching a class of young girls or running through the streets of New York in search of an ATM, or in the films most potent and rousing sequence, scrambling through the streets as Bowie's "Modern Love" blares most joyously on the soundtrack.  Gerwig creates the impression of a slapstick-prone slouch, but it's just the guise of a skillfully physical performer-- like a musician who makes a purposeful flub on purpose for effect.  It's enough to make Frances' career ambition both credible and a tad ridiculous, itself a truth for the many marginally talented sorts casting aside stability in pursuit of art.  The physicality is not merely present when Frances is prancing around however, as she adds a burst of energy and nuance to scenes where an ironic glare or shoulder shrug make everything just slightly more awkward than they should be.  It's a brilliant performance.  A

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