“I’m so sorry. I’m not a real person yet.”
—Frances (Greta Gerwig)
If life were like school, and grades were actually assigned in this manner, than the titular star of Noah Baumbach’s fresh-faced and spirited black and white comedy Frances Ha would get an “A” for effort. As played by Greta Gerwig, one of the most intriguing and effortless performers on the current American film scene, Frances is a flailing wipeout at life. She’s a dancer who can’t quite dance and a 27-year-old who doesn’t possess furniture, much less any clue as to where her life might lead.
At the film’s start, though, none of these things matters in the least. Over a gloriously scored montage (the film’s playful music throughout seems mostly lifted from the French nouvelle vague, except when it’s Bowie), Frances leaps and gambols through New York with her best friend Sophie (Mickie Sumner). They laugh, dance badly, play-fight in the park, laugh again, and fall asleep together in their shared Brooklyn apartment. The film—co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig—shows them as mutually free spirits, drawn into each other’s orbits. Frances wants their lives to go on like this, so she can be Sophie’s adoring companion, all day, every day. “We’re like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore,” she says.
Of course, nothing can stay the same, no matter the desire of an arrested development case like Frances. When she and Sophie do have a fight and the spell is broken, even just briefly, Sophie uses that break as a moment to flee Frances’ friendship. It’s not that she’s unhappy, only that she appears to feel a pressure from the adult world to move into some kind of steady heterosexual relationship that Frances doesn’t.
After Sophie is gone, Frances’ childlike insistence on staying in playtime forever becomes increasingly hard to sustain. Her employment of sorts with a New York dance company fades away, and she moves in with a couple of vaguely hipster guys her age who, as Sophie sarcastically comments, don’t have the money problems Frances does since they’re artists—and only the rich can afford to be artists in the city these days. For her part, Frances can barely afford to be herself, whatever that is.
In these middle sections, the film shifts from the earlier be-bop tone to an attentive study of Frances’ calamitously bad decision-making and inability even to hold adult conversations at a dinner party. The effect leaves you peeking through your fingers, as if watching a disaster, or maybe Lena Dunham’s work. But unlike Dunham’s mixed-up embryonic artists, in Tiny Furniture and Girls, Frances is an innocent, without a sense of entitlement or guile. Gerwig’s take on the character is refreshingly without attention-grabbing whimsy, instead reveling in her long-limbed, clumsy tomboyishness and stranger-in-a-strange-land quality, and Frances never becomes a manic pixie dream girl. In fact, Frances evinces almost no interest in any kind of romantic entanglement, and the film barely bothers developing any supporting characters besides Sophie beyond a few lines of dialogue.
The meshing of Gerwig’s and Baumbach’s styles marks a change for this director, though it’s less of a new direction than a return to an earlier one. Gerwig’s lo-fi mumblecore experience brings a deadpan comic quality to the film that’s more reminiscent of his earlier works like Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy. Her simple-seeming, sunny influence can also be felt in this film’s lighter tone, a great departure from the soured, raw texture of his more recent, misanthropic works like Margot at the Wedding or Greenberg. This isn’t to say that there isn’t some tragedy inherent in watching Frances stumble through life, but that Baumbach and Gerwig keep a background hum of comedy and even optimism running throughout.
Frances Ha feels like a sketchy work, something written and shot on the fly with only a few story and character signposts along the way to guide the process. That gives it an ephemeral nature but also a freed-from-gravity feeling, shorn of Baumbach’s usual tangled headiness. The film makes clear enough that Frances can’t live forever in the blissed-out joy of its early montages, but it also shows why at least one of them would want to stay there forever, and to hell with reality.