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.

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