Greta Gerwig's Frances Is Not a Real Person, Yet, but She's Working on It: 'Frances Ha'

Noah Baumbach’s deft romantic comedy spoons a nice helping of sugar into a dark premise.

Frances Ha

Rated: R
Writer: Noah Baumbach
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Charlotte D’Amboise, Adam Driver, Hannah Dunne, Michael Esper, Grace Gummer, Patrick Heusinger, Josh Hamilton
Studio: IFC Films
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-05-17 (Limited release)

"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, then 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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.