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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Review: Frances Ha

We all have a friend, someone who is a big dreamer and wants to be a massive success, but can't quite motivate themselves to get off the couch. Someone who wastes away their days on alot of big talk but never quite puts together all the pieces needed to make their ambitions realistic. In "Frances Ha", a collaboration between Noah Baumbach and co-writer Greta Gerwig, the focus is squarely on this type of lifestyle by way of its central character. Baumbach, the indie critical darling, that brought us films like "The Squid and the Whale" and "Kicking and Screaming" (and also wrote "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and "The Fantastic Mr. Fox") last left audiences with "Greenberg", a movie that arrived as more of a shrug than his previous triumphs (though it has improved on multiple viewings for this reviewer). Teaming with the always seemingly on the verge of breaking out, but can't quite get there Gerwig; Baumbach is aiming to reverse his fortunes a bit. Does he get there? The results are somewhat mixed, but generally yes.

Frances (Gerwig), is a modern dancer, scraping by teaching ballet classes to small children. She lives with her roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner) basically throwing caution to the wind: play-fighting in the street, drunkenly urinating in the subway, partying late into the night. Despite her relationship trouble with the opposite sex, as long as she has Sophie, she is content. They are, to use Frances' words "“an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore”.  This comes to a slight right turn when Sophie announces that she wants to move to a better neighborhood with another girl, and thus begins Frances' journey from domicile to domicile. From living with two New York artist rich-kids (Adam Driver and Michael Esper), a fellow dancer (Grace Gummer), making a few geographic weekend detours, and even attempting dorm living when all goes south, Frances works towards self-actualization while fighting against her worst instincts. If there's a wrong decision to be made, either socially or otherwise, Frances finds a way to make it.

Filmed completely in black and white, "Frances Ha" finds Baumbach in as close to the Woody Allen mold as he can possibly get. One would be forgiven for thinking that the Allen film "Manhattan" was one of Baumbach's influences here. In truth, storytelling is secondary in Baumbach's agenda. Instead, viewers are treated to extended vignettes that carry a nicely wry sense of humor. Each shot feels like it was lensed guerilla style and that sense of immediacy comes to the film's benefit. It would be easy to sit and say that this is the ultimate in "mumblecore/manic pixie" excess, but the film has a fine sense of almost jazz like cool that permeates through its French New Wave trappings. The idea of the perpetual "man-child" (or lady-child in this case) is something that Baumbach seems to aim for again and again, even in "The Fantastic Mister Fox". But thankfully, the central performance is able to delve greater nuance into this well-worn trope.

The beauty of what is being aimed at is the sense of timelessness, that area between college graduation and settling down into family life. We've all been there or are headed there, and for some its a far easier transition than others. Gerwig, to her credit, has never been better than she is here in displaying this universal epithet. Her everywoman appeal is on display throughout, and scenes like where she has to run down the street to find an ATM in order to pay for dinner display a heretofore unseen knack for physical comedy. She also is able to finely hone some of the more dramatic material, as seen in what might be the film's highlight in her weekend sojourn to Paris, aimlessly wandering the streets with nowhere really to go in mind. Her chemistry with her castmates is also quite nice. There isn't really another performance of great note, though Sumner comes close, but that isn't the point. This is Frances' story and everyone else revolves around her self-involved world.

On the other hand, it's the aforementioned aimlessness that occasionally gets "Frances Ha" into trouble. While the film's running time is a brisk, by today's standard's, 90 minutes or so; there are moments where the pace begins to feel quite sluggish. Nowhere is this more in evidence than when Frances returns to Vassar to become a Resident Advisor at one of the dormitories. Rather than the vibrancy of New York life, or the serene beauty of Paris, the goings-on at Poughkeepsie simply don't work as well particularly when the palette is already a bit dry due to the black and white stylings. When a film like this starts to drag, it really drags, and even a surprise appearance by a character (which is incredibly coincidental) doesn't do enough to reinvigorate the pace, and the film's conclusion, which follows immediately after, feels a bit too pat and easy for all the struggle we see before us. Are we to believe it's that easy to adjust when you're that emotionally stunted? Perhaps so, but it's tough to buy with what we're given.

That isn't to say that the final 20 minutes or so ruin anything that comes before. In "Frances Ha" we have Baumbach at the height of his "lived-in" craft, with a film that is tightly scripted but often feels so effortless you'd think it was all improvised. Despite a narrative lull or two, "Frances Ha" is a moving tale about friendship and how two people can eventually grow apart, only to find that real friendship is malleable for any situation if the connection is worth salvaging. There's a deeper theme at work that I wish Baumbach and Gerwig had investigated a little further in the idea of being a "poor" twenty-something in New York who can't make rent and considers a tax rebate a windfall, yet can't really conceivably call themselves poor due to having a safety net to fall back into if needed. The surface on that messaging gets scratched every so often, but it's passed on for the somewhat safer waters above.

In all though, it's a enjoyable little (emphasis on little) film that gives me a new appreciation for an actress who hasn't really had the framework in which to shine. I'm not sure if "Frances Ha" is her ticket to super-stardom, but Gerwig may finally be on her way.

I give it a B.

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