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Noah Baumbach’s terrific new film takes a seriocomic look at the life of an adorable misfit in 2012 New York City with the verve of French New Wave film from 1962. Co-written by Greta Gerwig, who plays the title role with entirely disarming self-deprecating humor, Frances Ha is a low-budget, black-and-white production populated mostly by wannabe creative types that immeasurably benefits from the feeling that it was shot on the wing. This is a niche picture of great appeal that will score with younger audiences looking for something offbeat and smart.
While the brief opening montage of life in Gotham smacks of Woody Allen, the milieu in question is distinctly different from the comic veteran’s territory. Gerwig, who worked with Baumbach in Greenberg (and acted for Allen in To Rome With Love) plays a bright, scattered 27-year-old who’s still living as though it’s her first year out of college. Rooming in Brooklyn with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) “like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore,” the gawkily attractive Frances is an apprentice dancer with a small company who spends far more time riffing with Sophie and whomever else turns up than focusing on how she might get ahead in life or even get a grip.
In fact, the script casually charts Frances’s gradual descent from passable survival to possible despair, albeit without any sense of angst. No matter what stumbling blocks life throws under Frances’ feet (and she’s enough of a klutz that she’ll stumble over every one of them) and regardless of how often she might prove to be her own worst enemy, mostly by talking too much, she’s got a buoyancy and spirit that somehow keeps her head above water as she bounces from one apartment to another and struggles to meet the financial challenge of New York.
The intermittent presence of Adam Driver as a downtown artist and womanizer merely drives home the film’s passing similarity to Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, both in milieu and the occasionally blunt dialogue describing weird and/or awkward sex. But the style and tone are entirely different. Baumbach shoots and cuts in a fleet, exhilarating manner that reminds of nothing less than the Godard of Band of Outsiders or the Truffaut of Shoot the Piano Player, a connection explicitly and sometimes movingly underscored by his extensive use of excerpts from 1960s French film scores composed by the great Georges Delerue. The director mixes moods with a playfulness that is both brazen and carefree and yet precisely modulated, yielding results that amplify the specific content of the screenplay.
This makes for a film that, however cheap it was to make, is incredibly rich to watch. A delightful throwaway sequence of Frances running/dancing down the street is paralleled to the embarrassing/hilarious sight of her, having offered to pay for a date’s dinner, dashing and stumbling block by block at night to find an ATM. On a Christmas visit to her parents, she takes a bicycle ride through suburban Sacramento, of all places, that is made to seem mordantly pathetic by the use of a famous Delerue bicycling theme. And then there’s her misbegotten weekend trip to Paris, in which Frances’ knack for the impromptu backfires on her in cringingly ruinous ways.
But the comic highpoint is saved for an extended climactic set piece played out at Frances’ (and Baumbach’s) alma mater, Vassar College. Reduced to returning to campus to work a weekend event, she is appointed to discreetly follow around a distinguished big-bucks donor as a wine pourer assigned to keep the woman’s glass filled at all times. The humorous potential of this setup is more than fulfilled, leading to a pleasing and reasonable wrap-up.
No matter whether she’s sporting genuinely amusing dialogue or making a fool of herself, Gerwig is embraceable, unpredictable and possessed of gifts for physical comedy that can be simultaneously graceful and bumbling. Like Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, she can behave lamentably and embarrassingly and you can still love her for it. This is unquestionably Gerwig’s defining performance to date.
Sumner’s Sophie also has maturity issues, and the way the two actresses get into it at times is pretty remarkable. No matter where the specific action is playing out, there’s a downtown vibe that accompanies it everywhere.
Production values are part and parcel with the off-the-cuff feel, but the film looks great in Sam Levy’s monochromatic cinematography. In addition to the abundant Delerue selections, the soundtrack is graced by a number of well-chosen rock and pop tunes.
Production: RT Features, Pine District, Scott Rudin Productions
Venues: Telluride, Toronto, New York film festivals
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Charlotte D’Amboise, Adam Driver, Hannah Dunne, Michael Esper, Grace Gummer, Patrick Heusinger, Josh Hamilton, Cindy Katz, Maya Kazan, Justine Lupe, Britta Phillips, Juliet Rylance, Dean Wareham, Michael Zegan
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriters: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Producers: Noah Baumbach, Scott Rudin, Lila Yacoub, Rodrigo Teixeira
Executive producers: Fernando Loureiro, Lourenco Sant’anna?Director of photography: Sam Levy
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Editor: Jennifer Lame
No rating. 86 minutes