Frances Ha (IFC Films, R)

francesha 75Frances Ha is a willfully loveable movie, and the best crowd-pleaser I’ve seen yet this year.

 

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Have you read any reviews of Noah Baumbach’s new picture Frances Ha before this one? All of them make a big point to compare it to other movies, almost always favorably—films of the French New Wave, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and TV’s Girls are the most commonly cited. There’s a reason why everyone is doing this: Frances Ha is one of those movies that reminds you of a hundred other movies you like, but in about the best possible way. It’s not ripping anything off or positioning itself in any terribly specific way; instead, it’s just that Baumbach and co-writer/star Greta Gerwig seem to use a large number of previous great movies as mulch to out of which to grow this beautiful movie.

While it’s hard to ignore the similarities to Girls—given the film’s girl-centric cast, Brooklyn setting, and the presence of one of the most exciting young actors right now, Adam Driver—Baumbach has been quick to point out in interviews that Frances Ha went into production at roughly the same time as season one of Girls, so any similarities there are coincidental (though welcome in my book, as I currently can’t seem to get enough of Girls). Frances Ha’s titular main character is perhaps familiar-ish to those of us who are big fans of Baumbach’s debut feature, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming (no, not the one with Will Ferrell), which centers on a group of aimless recent college graduates. That’s sort of how Frances (Gerwig) is, but a couple of years further on—she’s apparently 27, but can’t quite seem to find gainful employment or a stable living environment. Nor much in the way of maturity, come to think of it.

The backbone to the movie’s loose plot is following Frances through a series of living conditions, some of which are ideal, some less so. The one that’s most ideal to her is the one we start out in, with her hetero life partner Sophie (an excellent Mickey Sumner) as her roommate. But minutes into the film Sophie moves out unexpectedly to go live in Tribeca, a decision which throws Frances into the aforementioned living instability. She rebounds nicely at first by finding two fun boy roommates, Lev (Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), but that doesn’t last because Frances never has any money. And so it goes. Expect Frances to move once every 10 or 15 minutes over the course of this blissfully brief 86-minute film, but all of this moving serves mostly as a way of illustrating Frances as a character, which Gerwig and Baumbach do better than any other film I’ve seen yet this year.

Back to those influences: While I sometimes had trouble getting Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Miranda July’s The Future out of my head, the one that seems the most intentional on Baumbach’s part is the French New Wave, if for no other reason than because he conspicuously uses iconic FNW composer Georges Delerue’s music on the soundtrack. (The film’s free spirit and effortless likeability can easily be attributed to the Wave, too.) I take some offense to the Manhattan comparisons the film seems to be garnering, though, probably because I’ve always thought Manhattan is rather overrated. Is it just because Frances Ha is in black and white and set in New York City (though Brooklyn, not Manhattan)? 

A more apt comparison would be to Andrew Bujalski’s mostly overlooked 2005 mini-masterpiece Mutual Appreciation, which is also black and white and also set in Brooklyn. Mutual Appreciation is one of the defining films of the recent mumblecore movement, in which Gerwig has distinct roots as the most noteworthy female writer and/or director from the trend. 

That said, I’ve never really liked Gerwig in anything she’s done, whether she’s directing herself (Hannah Takes the Stairs, which is just horrible) or being directed by others (No Strings Attached, which was also just horrible, or Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, which is noticeably worse than any previous Stillman movie), but Baumbach sure knows how to use her. Her big breakthrough came in Baumbach’s most recent movie, 2010’s Greenberg, and her work in it was good enough that I’d’ve been happy to see her get an Oscar nomination out of it, but it was such a willfully off-putting movie that it never seemed to get the support it needed to pull off such a feat. 

Frances Ha, on the other hand, is a willfully loveable movie, and the best crowd-pleaser I’ve seen yet this year. Maybe she can parlay that into the recognition she (and this movie as a whole) deserves. If nothing else, hopefully the acclaim will keep Gerwig and Baumbach working together, as they’re the most promising collaborators to have popped up in the last couple years. | Pete Timmermann

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