(Dir. Noah Baumbach, United States, 2013)
Best Friends Forever
Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Frances Ha, opens with the somewhat perplexing image of two grown women presumably play fighting – slapping, punching, shoving each other for their own amusement. What follows is an extremely well edited montage establishing these two twentysomethings as best friends and roommates living in contemporary NYC. These seemingly candid moments between friends are amusing (fondly reminiscent of the antics of Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids) and set the tone for this dramedy that chronicles a few months in the life of its unstable titular character. Greta Gerwig brings 27-year-old Frances Halladay to life in a way few actors do in comedies these days. Her assistance in co-writing the film’s script with Baumbach may have led to the plausibility of her performance, and her subtle humor and unapologetic quirkiness make Frances Ha a delight from start to finish.
While the better part of the past decade has seen filmmakers exhaustively dissect the American man-child in genres both comedy and indie drama, Baumbach gives us an honest and welcome look at the woman-child, not nearly as explored or even depicted on film, in Frances. At 27, Frances still doesn’t have a stable job, has no secure means of paying rent, and frequently makes rash and spontaneous decisions that end in regret. We first encounter Frances on the eve of a soul-crushing break-up. No, not with a boyfriend (though that happens too), but with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Sophie, who seems to have her life together (we find out later she doesn’t), moves out of the apartment with Frances to move in with her boyfriend. Devastated and unable to make rent there, Frances moves in with two Bohemian wannabes Benji (Michael Zegen) and Lev (Adam Driver) who reaffirm her carefree way of living – though they live generously on familial handouts and don’t seem to share their new roommate’s growing fears about making ends meet.
Progressively distancing herself from Sophie (both intentionally and circumstantially), Frances embarks on a journey of couch surfing that takes her from Brooklyn to Sacramento to Paris to Poughkeepsie and back to New York where it all began. While she doesn’t exactly discover herself along the way (something that helps Frances Ha stand out amidst of a myriad of recent human condition diagnosing comedies), the journey is an engaging one. Cinematically, Baumbach’s film has an unsentimental nostalgic feel invoking the techniques and style of the French New Wave (most obviously in its black and white cinematography, less noticeably in its choice of reference checking music) and early Woody Allen. That being said, it also unmistakably belongs to its modern 21st century setting – a snapshot of extended adolescence that increasingly marks the college graduates of today’s America. Of course, Baumbach is wise enough to neither applaud this trend nor lambaste it. Instead, Frances Ha stands more or less as a portrait of a woman grappling with the responsibilities of adulthood.
Perhaps what is most striking about Frances Ha is its refreshing depiction of women who don’t need men to fix their problems. Thankfully choosing not to indulge in an outdated feminism that posits men as villains, Baumbach and Gerwig take a third approach – in this way sharing a breakthrough with this year’s Frozen, a more far-reaching if not less artistic film dealing with similar themes – that celebrates the power of female friendship as a catalyst for positive change. Frances may not have been explicitly motivated to get her life together because of Sophie, but the crucial reconciliation between the two sets her down a path that leads her to pick herself up, take a less than ideal but decent-paying job, work toward improving her skills as a dance choreographer, and find her own place.
The trajectory of Frances’ story is remarkably simple, but everything in between is genuinely heartfelt and at times quite hilarious. As Frances, Gerwig is utterly charming if not completely aggravating in her glaring lack of self-awareness. And yet, this may be what makes Frances Ha so enjoyable. It remains a delightfully realistic portrait of that one funny girl everybody knows given an entire film smart enough not to draw attention to its forward-thinking portrayal of modern women on the big screen. Kudos to Baumbach and Gerwig for daring to offer a much-needed alternative to the Apatow brand of comedic self-discovery. We can only hope to see more of this from both collaborators in the future.