Tuesday, June 4, 2013

To Live Her Life: FRANCES HA

Frances Ha is a trifle – loose, casual, light – but a rich one, full of unexpected layers of sweetness and surprise complexity. Writer-director Noah Baumbach, he of more emotionally unpleasant, though no less thrilling, character pieces like The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, brings his rawness to a character who is so charming and resilient that it’s hard not to like her. The film follows Frances (Greta Gerwig), a 27-year-old underemployed New Yorker who bounces around small apartments, hangs out with her best friend (Mickey Sumner), goes to parties, makes some money at a rapidly dead-ending job, and circles endlessly for a good way to improve her position in life. She, as one character matter-of-factly lets her know, is old without being grown-up.

Shot in appealing black and white photography and set to a jazzy soundtrack that draws upon French New Wave composers Georges Delerue and Jean Constantin as well as great uses of pop like David Bowie’s “Modern Love” and Hot Chocolate’s “Every1’s a Winner,” the film pulses with an energy that has to skip along to keep up with Frances and her aimless restlessness. She’s continually pushing towards her goals of self-sufficient adulthood, a drive she will usually undercut through some combination of shortsighted thinking and self-doubt. This gives every scene, so carefully observed and precisely performed despite a loose tone, a near-imperceptible anxiety, even when she’s making moves towards some degree of comfort, rooming with a friend or becoming buddies with two sometimes-charming wannabe artists (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) with lifestyles bankrolled reluctantly, they claim, by generous family.

Often very funny, the film gets big laughs not necessarily out of jokes, but out of situations and interpersonal dynamics so sharply drawn that recognition and empathy spark chuckles. A scene in which Frances finds herself at a dinner party with more accomplished peers plays humorously off of the ways in which she stretches to ingratiate herself as an intellectual – not-so-casually referencing how much she reads – and failing when defaulting to post-collegiate gossip and introspection so haphazardly philosophical she starts to fear she sounds stoned and says as much. The movie’s setting amid those privileged to live lives of such purposeful searching touches upon issues of class and economic conditions, but Baumbach neither cheapens them nor lets them overwhelm the film’s modest character sketch goals and good humor. When Frances hesitates at the ATM when confronted with the fee to be charged, it’s resonant without being heavy-handed. And that’s the way Baumbach and his cast operates here, with a film so light and enjoyable that the resonances and comedy appear casually, naturally.

This is the kind of film that’s a great delight mainly (though not only) for the way it introduces us to an interesting, appealing character. As played by Gerwig, who is also the co-writer, Frances is a person we like spending time with and want to see succeed. Throughout the film’s episodes, she seems to drift away from her goals, finding her way forward through trial and error, but Gerwig deploys winning misdirection in her encounters. Frances may be desperate, even depressed at times, but she diverts her acquaintances’ and colleagues’ attention with affected optimism that’s maybe truer than even she believes. Gerwig has a great physicality here, matching her winning line readings and occasional monologues, beautifully precise and unfussy turns of phrase, with a sense of movement and nonverbal reaction that finds exactly the right emotion to communicate. Gerwig’s performance is the kind that pulls focus without distracting: a real star turn.

It’s refreshing to see a film that takes women seriously by treating female friendship as real nuanced relationships instead of secondary concerns to romantic relationships with men. Frances interacts with her friends with a mixture of love and antagonism, competition and compassion, a mixture that shifts, grows, and evolves. Perhaps not since Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco has there been a film so truthful about this. Frances Ha is a film about a young woman striving towards a better life without once feeling the need to make her future contingent upon her romantic prospects. Instead, she simply exists amongst a group of people in a film that provides each and every character with a generous sense of a life lived. Some gentle fun may be poked at broad generalizations – yuppies, parents, hipsters – but each character comes into the picture with a past unspoken and leaves with a sense that their life continues beyond the frame. It’s a sharply written comedy with a light touch, but one that rings with truth.

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