Noah Baumbach’s films are typically quirky and off-beat. Rather than detailing extensive narratives of modern life and relationships, he focuses on the smaller, episodic moments of interaction and reflection that become the essential stuff of our lives. Baumbach delivers exposition by accretion, typically dropping the viewer into a situation and a set of relationships illustrated by dialogue, reactions, and interactions on to which he builds in a series of scenes that meander in various directions simultaneously.
The Squid and The Whale (2005) and Greenberg (2010) both offer portraits of families and relationships neither heroic nor exceptionally eccentric; Margot at the Wedding (2007) is darker and rougher in its treatment of family politics. But in many ways, his goal as a filmmaker seems to engage us with stories about people who are in most ways ordinary—not exceedingly beautiful or handsome, not necessarily paradigms of morality or values, but people who skew intellectual and artistic and relatively class-privileged, who muddle along trying to do the least amount of damage to themselves and others.
In his latest, Frances Ha, co-written with Greta Gerwig, who stars, Baumbach offers a character study in black-and-white (and beautiful shades of detailed gray, which thematizes the film’s narrative of ambivalence and uncertainty). Similar at first to Lena Dunham’s now iconic television series, Girls, Frances Ha focuses on the post-college graduation relationship of best friends Frances (Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) as they suffer through that indeterminate phase of their lives when possibilities loom large, while at the same time, prescribing a dose of reality and its limitations.
Frances and Sophie, as they agree, are like a long-term lesbian couple that’s stopped having sex. As roommates in a small apartment in Brooklyn, they’re physically intimate, sleeping together chastely and conveniently, sharing a bathroom and their ablutions, and talking about sex with men with the off-hand frank detail of women for whom heterosexuality seems given, but not necessarily interesting or compelling. In fact, when Frances’s boyfriend, Dan (Michael Esper), invites her to move in with him (ostensibly to help raise the odd hairless cats he plans to adopt), Frances demurs, explaining that she’s more committed to Sophie and couldn’t possibly walk out on their lease together. Dan and Frances break up shortly after. With little fuss or bother, they agree that their relationship hasn’t been working for a while, and step back from the precipice of commitment to foreclose their future together. This is how relationships play out for Millenials, I guess.
Likewise, despite Frances’s willingness to throw over a boyfriend to hang on to Sophie, Sophie has her eye on a Tribeca apartment that she’s willing to share with a woman she doesn’t even like, all for the geographic cachet. She asks her parents for help with the brokers’ fees, and leaves Frances in the lurch, prompting her best friend’s peripatetic peregrinations parking with a host of other acquaintances until the film’s surprisingly redemptive ending. Frances couch-surfs with Lev (Adam Driver, as quirky as ever but with his out-sized sexual appetites less graphically represented than with the character he plays on Girls) and Benji (Michael Zegen, sweet as the more benign, self-deprecating of the two male friends with whom Frances temporarily lives).
She moves on to stay with Rachel (Grace Gummer, supercilious and aloof, whether as the character or as an actor, it’s difficult to discern), a fellow dancer in a local company who reluctantly and very temporarily lets Frances into her life. Using a credit card she’s sent in the mail, Frances also takes a misbegotten trip to Paris for a weekend, sleeping through half of it in the cushy apartment of Rachel’s aunt and uncle, whom Frances has at once charmed, bemused, and repelled at a dinner party at which she’s clearly the odd girl out. The awkward dinner table scene is a wonderful illustration of Frances’s erratic social skills; sometimes she’s engaged and articulate, but among these more established grown-ups, Frances seems incoherent and painfully unformed.
Gerwig plays Frances as a captivating mix of hopeful and abject, the perfect Baumbach heroic foil. She wants to be an artist, but it’s clear her talents as a dancer, exuberant as they are, are small. The dance company to which she apprentices, led by Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise as the empathetic but straight-talking older woman who influences Frances’s choices), can’t make a place for Frances, but does save her in the end, pointing her life in a better-suited, more sensible and artistically plausible direction. Frances’s sophistication is nascent, too. In the way of many young women who graduate from prestigious liberal arts colleges (in this case, Vassar, obvious but unnamed until the credits), Frances thinks on her feet, sorting through the value of the great books she’s read and the expectation that’s been fed to her that she’s destined for greatness herself.
That Frances could be in fact ordinary is the horror that passes over her face frequently in Baumbach’s close examination, tempered only by the equally terrifying notion that she could also be lonely and alone. Sophie’s blithe rejection devastates Frances. And that Sophie leaves her for a man who’s beneath Frances’s contempt makes her friend’s departure that much harder to bear.
As Sophie, Sumner is all gawky elbows and knees, the sharp planes of her long face contrasting beautifully with Gerwig’s more ample features. Sophie wears over-sized round glasses that only emphasize her face’s length and angularity, giving her a look both pseudo-sophisticated and strangely like a 10-year-old trying on her older sister’s accessories. Sumner nicely plays Sophie’s mercurial temperament, her unintentional cruelty to her best friend presented not as emotional but only logistical.
Though she seems the one who has-it-all (that horrible, once again topical yardstick of success for some American women), Sophie’s unhappiness slowly dawns on Frances. Sophie leaves her job at Random House to follow her fiancée, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), to Japan, where he’s been appointed to a powerful job with Goldman Sachs. She’s bored and dissatisfied, but can’t seem to shake the obligatory marriage to the successful WASP-y man that comes with her pedigree, despite the fact that she’s Jewish. When Frances realizes that Sophie won’t revise her fatal choices, Frances goes about saving herself instead.
Frances Ha is a sweet and often sad investigation of young female friendships, a coming-of-age story in which Frances accepts the compromises necessary to accommodate the unpredictability of those you love and the disappointments you find in yourself. Frances isn’t particularly flawed—that is, she comes from a secure and loving family, though they can’t provide the financial safety net that her Bohemian friends seem to expect and accept. She’s smart and talented enough, if often socially awkward in the self-centered way of those who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of undergraduate experiences that spoon-feed them their own exceptionalism. But watching her find her own agency and become the artistic and emotional heroine of her own very reasonable life is a real pleasure.
Gerwig herself is an unconventional and appealing leading lady. She’s not wraith-like or svelte in the way of typical 20-something white romantic-lead actresses (even comic ones), and her face is pretty in an off-center, much more interesting way. One of the film’s most exhilarating moments comes when Gerwig as Frances is filmed in a long, high tracking shot running and dancing down the streets of New York, pirouetting through crosswalks and artfully avoiding other pedestrians as she moves to her own drummer.
Those moments of happy unselfconsciousness and revealing grace predict where Frances ends up in Frances Ha. Bathed in the warm, white light of confidence and hope, she becomes an unusual and lovely heroine. And as Feminist Spectator 2 notes, Frances Ha is also a wonderful New York City film—it’s almost as though it switches the focus from Woody Allen’s typical New York schlemiel to the young, impressionable, non-Jewish girlfriends he always dated in those movies, and sees the city from her perspective. Thanks to Baumbach and Gerwig’s empathetic, sweet script, that’s a real gift.
The Feminist Spectator