Frances Ha is a lot of things. It’s good (near great, even). It’s sweet. It’s smart. It knows what it’s like to chase a dream that is constantly slipping through your fingers. It knows that we sometimes get in our own way, especially at the worst possible times. What it’s best at, though, is making a complete portrait of a person in her late 20s (Frances is 27) who's borderline immature.
One gripe critics often voice is that the emotional centers of contemporary comedies tend to be immature dudes. That’s true. Does an immature dude make a comedy more or less funny? That’s an essay—not a review—for a different time. (Short version: Not inherently less funny.)
But Frances (a fine, funny and charming Greta Gerwig, who wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach) is of that generation, the so-called millennials, which was told to follow its dreams. Live a life that makes you happy. Worry about the other stuff later.
And maybe a life like that is immature. Who's to say? But one thing is certain: It can be a hard existence. Frances is constantly broke. She’s an apprentice dancer in a small company. She’s good, but you can tell other dancers are better, and her enthusiasm is what’s keeping her afloat.
Frances lives with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), in a Brooklyn apartment. In fact, Frances and Sophie are so close, their relationship as roommates sort of breaks up Frances and her boyfriend.
The boyfriend asks Frances to move in. She knows their relationship isn’t at the move-in phase, and that the relationship may not be much of a relationship. The boyfriend doesn’t quite get it, and she won’t tell him straight out, so she lets her apartment with Sophie be the excuse to not cohabit. She’s promptly broken up with, and she joins Sophie and her friends Lev (Adam Driver) and Ben (Michael Zegen) at a house party like the break-up is no big deal.
And it’s not a big deal. Getting into the dance company is a big deal. Making rent is a big deal. Deciding whether to use an ATM that will charge a $3.00 out-of-network fee is a big deal.
Sophie leaving the apartment to move to Soho is a big deal. Eventually, she leaves for Tokyo with her boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger). It’s one of many things that sends Frances into a tailspin.
Frances doesn’t do herself any favors. She takes a poorly considered trip to Paris (financed on a credit card that came in the mail), and she turns down an office job at her dance company to keep pursuing the dream. All the while, she moves from apartment to cheaper apartment in order to stay ahead of homelessness. In a knowing way, major events in Frances’ life are tracked via title card with her current address on it.
Ultimately, Frances Ha is about making choices, taking advice and growing up, and it feels more real than other comedies that are about taking responsibility. Maybe that’s because the story isn’t played for laughs, though it is meant to be funny.
The weight of the picture is on Gerwig, who delivers. She plays Frances as if her brain and mouth aren’t always in the same place, as if she’s trying to get the right words out without sounding like a nitwit or a crazy person. Ben, one of Frances’ many roommates, calls her “undateable” for her ability to too often say something goofy.
Sam Levy’s black and white photography shines a metaphorical spotlight on Frances that makes her experiences seem like the only experiences in the world. It’s a smart device, and it takes pressure off the clever screenplay, giving the audience more information about Frances’ status.
Baumbach and Gerwig have done something wonderful with Frances Ha, giving us a lead character at a crossroads without resorting to crazy plot twists or big ta-da moments. Life is often dramatic—and funny—enough on its own.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
With Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner and Adam Driver