In writer-director Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, the title character runs and dances through the streets of New York. Greta Gerwig, the film’s co-writer, stars as the joyful Frances, a 27-year-old aspiring dancer.
But Frances dwells in a purgatory between college life and genuine adulthood. She dreams of dancing with the professional company she’s associated with, for instance, but so far she’s merely an apprentice.
Frances’ living circumstances are in similar flux. The film divides her life into chapters defined by her frequent changes in address. She never has a place she can call her own.
Baumbach and Gerwig, principals of the similarly directionless Ben Stiller comedy-drama of 2010, Greenberg, present Frances as demonstrative and child-like. She enthusiastically greets Sophie, her best friend, roommate and fellow Vassar College graduate, with a cheery “Ahoy, sexy!”
When Frances and Sophie first appear together on screen they’re playing in the park like a pair of goofy adolescents. They’ve known each other forever and their rapport is instinctive.
Frances explains her relationship with Sophie by saying, “We went to college together and we’re the same person.” And at home in their apartment, they repeatedly tell each other: “I love you!”
But things are changing. The focused Sophie, played by the suitable down-to-earth Mickey Sumner, has a real job at book publishing company Random House. She’s also in a serious relationship with Patch (Patrick Heusinger), the boyfriend whom Frances disdains.
Sophie’s matter-of-fact, emotionless decision to move out of the apartment she’s shares with Frances seems sudden and cold. The anchorless Frances, apparently outgrown by her precious friend, is left adrift in New York City.
Baumbach and Gerwig fashion a script of naturalistic dialogue. Their black-and-white New York story falls somewhere between classic Woody Allen and the cinéma vérité documentaries of Albert and David Maysles.
Like Allen’s New York films, Frances Ha’s characters, including Frances’ succession of roommates, tend to be, or at least strive to be, in the arts. It’s a milieu Baumbach and Gerwig represent with wit and credibility.
Gerwig and Sumner are surrounded by an equally convincing cast including Adam Driver and Michael Zegen as Frances’ first post-Sophie roommates and Charlotte d’Amboise as the practical but not unkind director of Frances’ dance company.
There’s depth and realism in the way Frances Ha shows aspiration versus reality. Ambition is not always met, or not met in the way some young people had hoped. The school of lowered expectations teaches its lessons.
As initially irritating as Gerwig’s motor-mouthed Frances may be, the character’s floundering includes moments of affecting poignancy. She can be terribly lost and alone. The natural lightness that more often defines Frances’ character, even in the face of continuous disappointments, makes her dark moments all the more touching and return to the light more satisfying.
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