Director Noah Baumbach is one of the most honest filmmakers working today. Often quixotically summed up as misanthropic or angst-ridden, Baumbach’s films actually feature an astute sense of humor that is not afraid to explore the deep emotional wounds we incur while growing up. It’s a difficult thing to turn humorous, and he has always handled it with masterful finesse.
Baumbach has directed films starring Ben Stiller (Greenberg, see my original review: Greenberg: The Great Projector) and Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding). His screenplays stand out as offering refreshing new challenges to stars like Stiller and Kidman, who sink their teeth into these titular characters with heavy, damaged personalities to sometimes disturbing lows while offering a mordant sense of humor. It’s a fine line to walk as far as entertainment, but it’s a testament to his craft that he can attract such figures to his work despite the rather dark humor.
With Frances Ha, Baumbach finally seems to reveal a lighter touch. The film follows a young woman (Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script) learning to let go of her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) while figuring out how to make her own opportunities in her career choice: modern dance. The film is a testament to the oft-neglected stage of growing up in one’s later years, sometimes referred to as the quarter-life crisis. It’s not far off the mark from what makes the current buzzy HBO series “Girls” so popular, but Frances Ha is much more tidy and heartfelt. It has a charm influenced beyond concerns of the current generation usurping interest in current media. Both French New Wave and early Woody Allen are more relevant as influences than Gen Y malaise.
Maybe it’s the luminous black and white cinematography and setting, but a comparison to Allen’s Manhattan would not fall far from the mark. However, it’s how Baumbach has channeled French film— from Nouvelle Vague influences to a contemporary master— that will appeal to most cinephiles. Over all, the film has a tone recalling the bright but resonant personal dramedies of François Truffaut. Then there are specific scenes that pay conscious tribute to the wardrobe of Bande à part by Jean-Luc Godard and the more contemporary Leos Carax, involving the hit David Bowie song “Modern Love” and Frances running in the street, a la Mauvais sang.
More subtly, Baumbach employees a smart soundtrack featuring music by Georges Delerue, whose scores accompanied many films of the French New Wave. Witty cues and flourishes pepper the closing of many scenes in distinct homage. However, beyond the black and white cinematography and the music, the nostalgia ends there. In fact, it’s representative of the titular character’s condition who has found herself in a rut because she cannot seem to let go of her own past. Her inner child still seems to claw its way out from inside her despite put downs from a friend who blithely calls her “undatable” and a boss who has grown tired of stringing her along for some permanent position in a dance company Frances seems only half-invested in.
Gerwig dives into the character physically and facially. With her forced smile, raised eyebrows and furrowed brow, she plays Frances with an awkward charm that buoys her throughout the film’s many dramas. Frances is so desperate for relevance, as her friends seemingly glide through life, be they “artists” with indulgent parents or lucky career climbers, she decides to charge a weekend trip to Paris, so she might “grow” a bit. Succumbing to jet lag and a friend who won’t answer her phone calls, the highlight of her trip may have been catching Puss in Boots in a movie theater off the Champs-Élysées.
As with any Baumbach film, the director knows how to pile on the witty, if sometimes sardonic, scenes at a break-neck pace. But the reason the script, which Baumbach co-wrote with Gerwig, feels so smart is not that these are jokes looking for easy laughs. They provide a charming avenue to develop Frances’ character while also making her relatable. The audience is not meant to look down at her state of arrested development but sympathize with it. The film has a wonderful way of piling on the moments of fleshing out the character without feeling redundant and still upping the stakes of the drama as her career becomes on the line, and her friendships drift away. It’s a valid fear everyone knows.
The brilliance of the film is how it can take a character in such a state and make it not only entertaining but also earn a sense of hope in the end. As much as she loves having friends and cannot seem to let go of her appreciation for animated movies (She says, “Animals have to talk or be at war for a movie to be interesting,”) or play fighting in the park, any growth ultimately has to come from within. You can give as much affection to your friends as you want but never neglect the friend you should be to yourself.
Frances Ha runs 86 minutes and is rated R (frank talk, including sexuality). It opens today, May 24, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach for its South Florida premiere run (IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review). It also appears in West Palm Beach on May 31 at Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Regal Delray and Cinemark Palace. Miami will see AMC Sunset Place adding the film to their line-up on May 31, also. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here. Update: “Miami New Times” has published my interview with the star of this film here (that’s a hot link; more on this to come). Update 2: Frances Ha will arrive at the Miami Beach Cinematheque Friday, July 5. Update 3: Frances Ha finally arrives in Broward County thanks to the Cinema Paradiso starting Friday, July 12. Update 4: Frances Ha has also made its way to O Cinema beginning Thursday, July 4.