There are 27-year-olds who have their shit together, but I wasn’t one of them. If you were, you may watch Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha as a sort of anthropological study: the still-questing twentysomething, running into pitfalls and learning (the hard way, of course) that expectation goes hand-in-hand with entitlement, and neither are in sync with reality very often.
If you were — or are, or expect to be — a person who has not got life totally figured out before 30, you may relate a little more closely to Frances, which awkwardly and lovingly depicts a certain transitional period. It’s a tough one to nail, the shift from not-quite-adult to actually-an-adult, but Baumbach and his star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig, wrap this sea change in humor and awkwardness, centering it in hope and friendship, in acceptance of failure and necessary mistakes.
Gerwig, once the darling of a certain corner of the indie set (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead), has long had a peculiar sort of self-consciousness onscreen, a presence that made her both compelling and painful to watch as, for example, the younger woman to Ben Stiller’s neurotic Roger in Greenberg.
In Frances, she’s a little older, a little more tired, but still playful and genuine. Sam Levy’s lush, old-fashioned black-and-white cinematography (nodding to Manhattan and the French New Wave), makes Gerwig look even more like a classic movie star than usual, creating a lovely and apt juxtaposition between the beauty of the film and the mess of Frances’ life. Frances (whose last name, thankfully, isn’t actually Ha) is an apprentice dancer and an experienced apartment surfer; the film tracks her journey in addresses, from Brooklyn to Sacramento to Poughkeepsie and back to New York. She jokes that she and her best friend, Sofie (Mickey Sumner), are the same person with different hair, but Sofie is rapidly becoming a very different person — one with an office job, a serious boyfriend who buys pre-distressed baseball hats, and less desire to play-fight in the park.
Everything that happens in Frances Ha is tiny and irrelevant, huge and catastrophic. If you’re too close to the age and situation of the characters (who are all white and well-educated), you might cringe; if you’re too far from their experience, you may roll your eyes. Frances Ha isn’t Girls or Tiny Furniture, but there’s a firm line connecting them — or maybe several. While Baumbach and Gerwig trace Frances’ uneven path to becoming a “real person,” they, like Lena Dunham, take the experience of their young, female characters entirely seriously. Frances is quirky, prone to the occasional bout of oversharing, unsure how much to trust herself — but the movie isn’t. The big, romantic score, dotted with perfect pop songs (oh, that all movies could use David Bowie this well), pushes the boundaries of this intimate story, making it bigger, making a brief few months in one girl’s ordinary life into the pivot on which her personal narrative turns.
Baumbach has said his movies are “about squaring who you want to be with who you actually are.” Years ago, he made the best movie about (mostly male) post-collegiate flailing, Kicking and Screaming. Now he’s made a better one about growing up. Frances Ha is a funny, sympathetic, perfect take on the golden age for not feeling golden about your life — except at those moments when it’s just right because it’s a little wrong.
FRANCES HA: Directed by Noah Baumbach. Written by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. Cinematography, Sam Levy. Editor, Jennifer Lame. Music coordinator, Sara Matarazzo. Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver and Michael Zegen. IFC Films, 2013. R. 86 minutes. Four stars.