Noam Baumbach films are glorious in their imperfections. They are off-beat, off-kilter, a little bit cool, somewhat pretentious—but they always seem to work beautifully. The delightful “Frances Ha” is no exception, and for two consecutive releases now, Noah has cast his charming, infectious muse, Ms. Greta Gerwig(they are in a relationship after-all—Gerwig also co-wrote the screenplay). Unlike 2010’s observant “Greenberg” however, where Gerwig lends ample support in ultimately saving star Ben Stiller, Greta is the headliner here. And she’s a running, dancing, jumping, falling bundle-of-charm, sprinkled with awkward. This would be her star-making performance, if only more people ventured out of their homes to see this type of gem(“Frances Ha” has grossed just over two million dollars in the last four weeks, and Baumbach has never had a film perform better than around 7.5 million domestically). So why hire the babysitter and venture to a low-budget, b&w, festival circuit hit, instead of so-called popcorn movies like “Iron Man 3”, “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Fast & Furious 6”? Well, Greta Gerwig is a terrific starting point for the argument. And besides—your supposed to be an adult, aren’t you?
Frances Handley(Ms. Gerwig)is a 27 year-old modern dancer still trying to make her mark in life. She works at a dance studio, but can’t seem to rise above the level of apprentice. Her relationship with Dan(Michael Esper)just ended because she said no to moving in with him. Frances’ reasoning is that she’s expecting to renew her apartment lease with her roommate Sophie(rock star Sting’s daughter, an excellent Mickey Sumner). Frances and Sophie appear to have one of those Oprah/Gayle relationships, in that they are so closely bonded that they can finish each other’s sentences. And it’s only natural to assume that there’s more than that—which there isn’t, by the way—at least as far as Sophie and Frances go. What a bummer when Sophie decides to move into a trendy Tribeca apartment instead, leaving the under-employed, soon to be labeled “undate-able” Frances in a lurch. Insult to injury, Sophie’s romance with the likable, but unspectacular, Patch(Patrick Heusinger)continues to blossom. These developments send Frances on a wonderful life-finding journey—first to an apartment with two guys(fun, quirky work from Adam Driver as Lev and Michael Zegen as Benji), then crashing for a number of weeks with a fellow dance company member(the far-from-Sophie, Rachel as played by Grace Gummer), and later unexpectedly to Paris, then Sacramento, California, and finally to a desperation job at her alma mater in upstate New York. Frances is trying to locate Frances—and we achingly want her to succeed.
This film is a winner. It had me at the deliriously perfect trailer infused with David Bowie’s 1980’s hit, “Modern Love”(watch it above). And Gerwig is an unclassifiable marvel. There’s a beautifully penned and directed, ultra-awkward dinner scene around mid-film that painfully illustrates how Frances’ personality idiosyncrasies don’t quite mesh with everyone. Will they mesh with you? Probably not, if you’ve been on a steady diet of the aforementioned blockbusters. But if you’re willing to take a risk with a sharp, poignant, NYC-flavored art flick with a European feel, you just might find yourself pulled to the siren-call of Ms. Gerwig too. It’s ultimately a touching story of a kindred spirit friendship and, for better or worse, the girl it left behind. Grade: A-