Movie review: 'Frances Ha' a charming portrait of 20-something ennui

Published: Friday, May. 31, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 16TICKET
Last Modified: Sunday, Jul. 7, 2013 - 2:48 pm

A celebration of cinema, New York City and the distinctive charms of actress Greta Gerwig, "Frances Ha" was co-written by Gerwig and its director, Noah Baumbach, and it's the best film either has made.

Frances (Gerwig), an underemployed dancer, will face harsh realities as the film progresses. But she's young (though not that young, as people keep reminding her), resilient (after some setbacks) and so consistently on the move that her challenges and triumphs – and this 86-minute movie shot in crisp, beautiful black and white – fly by.

Frances is no slacker, but she's not tearing it up career-wise or romantically. At 27, she's an apprentice with a prestigious dance troupe in New York, but her prospects of actually joining the company look dim.

Rather than face her situation, she finds other diversions, pretend-fighting with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner) or running and dancing through Manhattan streets to David Bowie's anthemic "Modern Love" in a sequence that's big and affectionate and different from anything Baumbach has shot before.

Or changing addresses, having been displaced by a roommate's whims or her own inability to cover rent. She's always anchored, however, by immense likability – a new twist for a Baumbach protagonist.

In his uncomfortably intimate character studies "The Squid and the Whale," "Margot at the Wedding" and "Greenberg," Baumbach favored smart but selfish characters who dared you to like them. Frances is smart, too, but she's relatable from the start.

Gerwig's prominent eyebrows and large eyes lend her a childlike quality enhanced by the black-and-white photography. At times she suggests a ragamuffin silent-film character. But her droll delivery and her character's self-awareness lend Frances a thoroughly modern quality.

"I'm sorry – I am not a real person yet," she tells her dinner companion (Adam Driver, as a less idiosyncratic hipster than the one he plays on "Girls") after her credit card is declined at the restaurant.

Though not oblivious, Frances is stubbornly impractical. Otherwise, she would take the suggestion of a higher-up at the dance company and try choreography instead.

The dance scenes highlight Gerwig's unusual physicality. She is not klutzy, but kind of clunky – tall and a bit stiff. Yet there's an inherent grace to her bearing. In her movements, you can see that Frances always has been a dancer and that she never will be good enough to succeed in a high-caliber professional company.

Being an apprentice was fine for a while, because Frances is surrounded by would-be writers and artists in their 20s whose true full-time jobs appear to be smoking and drinking.

Best friend Sophie provides a more stable role model with her publishing job and also, at movie's start, meets all of Frances' emotional needs.

Gerwig and Sumner share an easy chemistry, Gerwig growing more puppyish and Sumner subtly apologetic as Sophie moves toward settling down with the boyfriend whose "bro" mannerisms she and Frances make fun of. Sophie contributes to the jokes, but she's more mature than Frances and able to overlook imperfections in a mate.

There's also a nice rapport between Gerwig and Michael Zegen, as Frances' roommate. He's also coasting through his 20s, but he's from a richer family than Frances', and his stepfather underwrites his eBay habit and attempts at comedy writing.

He shares with Frances an aversion to romantic relationships, and calls them both "undateable." They're both dateable, and could date each other, were they not jointly determined to hide out in the vestiges of free-wheeling youth and unattainable career goals.

When professional and personal doors shut in her face, Frances girds herself with a return home to Sacramento, also Gerwig's hometown. Black-and-white shots of the Capitol and River Park give Sacramento a storybook quality, but scenes with Gerwig and her real-life parents (playing Frances' parents) root this stylized film in authenticity.

The brief but warmth-filled Sacramento scenes suggest the origins of Frances' open demeanor and tendency to say exactly what she feels. She probably was encouraged to always be herself.

When that love and encouragement and her own tenacity don't add up to success, Gerwig shows Frances' quiet devastation, both through her screenwriting and her acting.

Like lots of young people faced with challenges, Frances changes her situation instead of changing herself. She's on the run and acting out, though she never goes the full Hannah, a la Dunham's character on "Girls," the HBO series with which this film shares a milieu.

The Manhattan setting, black-and-white photography and Gerwig's lovable stumbling also evoke Diane Keaton during her Woody Allen period. Or rather, during all her periods, since Gerwig shares with Keaton an unfettered quality and an unconventional beauty.

Like Keaton's heroines, Gerwig's heroines thrive and usually exist in rarefied settings. Keaton or Gerwig might play the poorest people in their environments, but those environments tend to be cultured and indulgent of eccentric women.

It would be interesting to see what Gerwig, having now played – and nailed – the ultimate 2013 Keaton/ Gerwig heroine in "Frances," could do if she expanded her cinematic wheelhouse to say, Appalachia.


Three 1/2 star

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen, Adam Driver

Director: Noah Baumbach

86 minutes

Rated R (sexual references, language)

Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

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