Monday, May 27, 2013

Work in Progress: Frances Ha

In Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Frances (Greta Gerwig) certainly marches to the beat of a different drummer. She pees in the subway over the third rail, and she runs along the streets of New York City like a little girl. She goes off on odd tangents during a sophisticated dinner party, and she jumps up and makes omelets when someone says he doesn't want to eat out but he wants to be served. She likes to fake-fight in public with her best friend, and when she tries this with someone else, the result is hilarious.

Frances is aimless in New York. She aspires to be a dancer, but she’s too awkward and big-boned to be good at it. Still, she’s a good teacher and a good director. As a 27-year-old woman trying to find herself in the big city, she doesn’t have enough money for rent and has to go begging for a couch to sleep on. When she loses her position with a dance troupe, she works for her alma mater’s summer program, and in a number of sharply poignant scenes there, it is clear that she feels like she's losing ground instead of making progress in her life. Frances would like to appear mature and sophisticated, but after visiting her parents in their simple home in Sacramento, the expression on her face when she parts from them at the airport reveals that she is not far from being a child.

Filmed in rich black-and-white, this series of naturalistic vignettes presents Frances as a likable lost soul. In certain respects, we might find ourselves identifying with her because we have known someone like her, or we share some of her characteristics and have been in similar situations: being the unsophisticated outsider at a dinner party; dropping the oddball comment that makes everybody’s head turn; feeling less talented than all the talented people around us. As I watched, I thought of my former students coming into their post-college years; I also found myself thinking about how ill-formed I was at twenty-seven.

That Frances jacks up her credit card bill for a weekend in Paris, just because everyone at the dinner party brags about Paris, stretches the film’s everyday realism, but the fact that she forges ahead on her own like this, even though she sleeps through her first day there and spends the rest of her time walking aimlessly, is an indication of Frances’s courage to strike out on her own – as she does when she directs a group of young people in a successful performance of an experimental dance.

Some of the episodes are off key or fall flat. Sometimes, such as when Frances discards a chair from storage and posts a sign on it asking someone to adopt it, the vignettes have no more point than to be cute. For the most part, however, the film’s realism is memorably sharp, and the film’s title character is well worth spending time with. We might find ourselves cheering Frances on, and smiling warmly in sympathy when the film’s title works its way Rosebud-fashion into the final image, suggesting that Frances, like most young people her age, is a work in progress.


Steve's Blog said...

Your review makes me curious about a film that I had absolutely no interest in seeing when I first heard of it. This bias of mine is predicated on Baumbach's previous works, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and that abysmal Ben Stiller vehicle, Greenberg. These films share the common thread of following pseudo-elitists on their respective journeys to do all they can to not actually have to be accountable for their lives.

Frances sounds like the opposite of that from your review. It sounds as if she begs our empathy and actually wants to live and find herself. This intrigues me and I hope the film will be around long enough to check out here. Thanks for the review!

Hokahey said...

Steve - At first, I was not that enthusiastic about seeing this film. Then I saw some links to it on Twitter, and I saw a scene and liked the look of it. It may be self-consciously artsy at times, but I am very interested in the lives of my post-college-age former students and where their wanderings are taking them, so I had an interest in its topic and I found myself liking it. I liked it a lot more than Tiny Furniture, another indie about a post-college woman trying to find herself in NYC. Thanks for reading!

Sam Juliano said...

A lovingly descriptive and animated review Hokahey! The anger in Noah Baumbach’s previous writing has yielded to a softer and more endearing if melancholic tone in his FRANCES HA, which features daily life vignettes, lovingly chronicled by Sam Levy’s aching monochrome in a clear homage to the director’s kinship to the French New Wave., though there is a hip modernity to the proceedings. Frances is wonderfully played by Greta Gerwig, who co-writes the sensitive comic fable that examines friendship, ambition and redemption. Mickey Sumner and Adam Driver are also memorable in this stylish bohemian story that is framed by appealing time and place chapter stops. Happy that you put aside some prospective reservations and sought this out. I think I like it even more than THE SQUID AND THE WHALE.

Hokahey said...

Sam - Thanks for your gracious comment. I also prefer this film to The Squid and the Whale. You point out the "appealing time and place chapter stops." This is true; the editing was superb. I had also meant to note in my review that at times the film very much resembles the look and tone of Jules and Jim, and you point out the homage to French New Wave. Yes, this was a rewarding viewing that I'm glad I didn't miss - it was only on the Cape for a week.