SIFF Film Review – Frances Ha
Growing up is hard. Life is full of constant change; friendships and relationships come and go, despite our hopes that this evolution is avoidable. We want to live in a world full of the illusion that everything will remain in a comfortable stasis forever. This internal conflict between hope and reality is the subject of Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Frances Ha.
If the name Noah Baumbach doesn’t ring a bell for you, you aren’t alone. Over the last few decades, he has been one of the one of the more underappreciated filmmakers. Despite consistently releasing great work himself (Kicking & Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) as well as being a significant contributor to successful projects by Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox), his name doesn’t really seem to have reached the mainstream. His work as both a director and a writer has received a lot of critical acclaim, but he seems to resist the notoriety of Hollywood and continues to focus on passion projects (with the one glaring exception being his writing credit on Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, but hey, who doesn’t need a good payday every now and then?).
The challenge of growing up is not a new topic to Baumbach, and is actually a recurring theme throughout most of his work. Frances Ha, in essence, is a story about a woman in a state of arrested development. Frances (Greta Gerwig) lives in a perpetual state of change—her living situation is constantly in flux; her job situation is temporary at best. Despite this, she continues to pursue her dreams (recklessly, sometimes). Her pursuit of a career in dance has stalled, her friends are drifting away as they move on with their lives, and she has trouble finding love thanks to her co-dependent relationship with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Viewers looking for a story with a clear narrative arc might be frustrated by Frances’s story, because this is more about the journey than the end destination. There is an earnestness and relatability to Baumbach’s films that makes them powerful, much in the same way as the films from the Duplass brothers. It is very much in the spirit of indie filmmaking, as if he is talking directly to a very specific group of filmgoers who don’t have many other films representing themselves.
Baumbach’s style as a director tends to be unique and creative, often a bit experimental. Here, he decides to go for a black & white look, with chapters for each address Frances Ha lives at. There have been comparisons to Woody Allen’s Manhattan with the style of comedy and the look. There is no question that Baumbach has a similar affection for New York City, but this is more of a story about a period of life, and less about the specific place.
The bulk of the film’s success must be credited to the stellar performance by Gerwig in the film’s titular role. Expanding upon their previous work together in Greenberg, Gerwig is not just an actress, but also played a significant role in writing the script, and the benefits to acting out her own work can be seen on the screen. Much like Baumbach, she has been underrated in recent years, working with many up-and-coming filmmakers in films such as Lola Versus, Greenberg, Baghead, and The House of the Devil. Her talent for playing both dramatic and comedic roles has suited her well, and she also has the ability to evoke each side simultaneously, which makes her characters pop. She certainly has flirted with mainstream success (No Strings Attached, To Rome with Love), but seems to be content with being an indie darling (in the same vein as Parker Posey or Patricia Clarkson). The film is loaded with Baumbach’s dry sense of humor, and Gerwig typifies these sensibilities.
Ever since his early films, one of Baumbach’s strongest attributes has been the casting choices. Gerwig and Josh Hamilton have previously been in his work, but a lot of significant roles here are played by character actors, like Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, and Girls‘s Adam Driver. Baumbach is a master of dry humor and does an excellent job of casting actors who can deliver it perfectly. While he has a knack for writing quippy dialogue in the same vein as Kevin Smith’s or Quentin Tarantino’s, his films don’t revolve around it in quite the same manner that theirs do. Instead, he uses comedy as a means of breaking the dramatic tension before he begins to build it up again.
The beautiful simplicity of this film is a throwback to Baumbach’s earlier work. It is funny, heartbreaking, and uplifting all at the same time. I doubt Frances Ha will be one of his most successful films financially, but it is one his strongest creatively. It is a powerful reminder about the naivety of youth, as well as the power of dreams – something many of us have long been jaded about.
Final Grade: A-
Also, be sure to check out our interview with actress Greta Gerwig from SIFF 2013.