The Films of 2013: Frances Ha

There may not come a breezier comedy this summer than Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, a beautifully wrought character study driven by a winsome performance by Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach, as it turns out) in the title role.  The film spans a year or so in the life of Frances, a dancer, as she stumbles through a series of jobs and New York apartments, makes a series of bad financial decisions, and tries to keep a relationship going with her best friend and sometime-roommate, Sophie (“we’re basically the same person with different hair,” Frances claims).  

If we've seen this story many times before, it’s effectively invigorated by Baumbach and Gerwig’s light touch, which keeps things moving, moving, moving, and by Gerwig’s fine comic chops.  Gerwig brings humanity and a certain raw energy to what might have, in other hands, become just another iteration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Frances is affable, spontaneous, and klutzy, but at times her antics are tinged with a melancholic dreaminess, at others undergirded by a bitter desperation.  Perhaps most importantly, Gerwig and Baumbach have mastered the art of pacing, whether at the level of the screenwriting, the acting, or the direction.  The thing breathes.  Rarely these days does a comedy succeed in maintaining such a natural rhythm, let alone one that clocks in, as this one does, at a neat 86 minutes. 

Frances Ha also manages to side-step many of the clichés of the young woman-in-the-big-city genre by shifting the focus away from its heroine’s love life. Frances breaks up with her boyfriend in the very first scene of the film and doesn’t seem particularly anxious to find another one.  Instead, the film chooses to explore Frances’ increasingly vexed relationship with Sophie as they weather a series of personal and professional conflicts.  While effectively played by Mickey Sumner, Sophie isn’t half as interesting a character as Frances—but it’s Frances’ story, after all, and Sophie functions to bring out different notes in Frances’ (and Gerwig’s) emotional register.  I’d still rather watch these two women try to maintain a fraying platonic bond than yet another love roundelay in which various young couples try to decide whether or not they’ll break up or stay together (the last season of Girls, anyone?).  Frances Ha is a love story of sorts, but one that takes the chords of the romantic comedy and transposes them into a refreshingly unfamiliar key.  

The film’s charm ultimately lies in Baumbach and Gerwig’s ability to avoid belaboring the material.  The direction is as deft as the writing; Baumbach has a knack for building comedy into the very rhythms of the editing, and there are some wonderfully funny sequences here, such as a gently snarky montage in which Frances flies to suburban California to spend a Christmas with her comfortably middlebrow family.  Baumbach appears to have taken his cues here from the early Truffaut films, with their slightly zany lyricism and unsentimental poignancy.  If Truffaut is the reference point here, then it’s safe to say that Frances Ha does for Greta Gerwig what Jules and Jim did for Jeanne Moreau.  The film itself is in love with her, and by the time the end credits come up it comes as no surprise that we’ve fallen a little bit in love with her, too.    

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