Noah Baumbach’s most uplifting film to date (which is a major step up when comparing his latest to his last effort – the overly cynical and absolutely annoying Greenberg) has an almost immediately disarming look and feel to it.
Taking on the aesthetics of a first or second year student thesis project, the black-and-white dramedy feels normal once we can identify what Baumbach’s movie resembles – leading us to focus on what Baumbach and his film are doing correctly.
For lots of moviegoers, they’ll easily categorize the movie as a product of Generation Girls. To pigeonhole a movie that directly is a little unfair, but when actor Adam Driver shows up as one of our lead’s acquaintances and is playing a more charming version of his character on HBO’s Girls, it’s hard not to ignore.
However, I’ll take Frances Ha a step further. Frances Ha is a very “frenchy” version of Girls. Especially with its black-and-white palette and title cards setting the scene.
When we see the film’s heroine Frances (played doe eyed and very well by Greta Gerwig) trot around the streets of New York with her best friend Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner), the instrumental music accompanying these montages is light and jubilant as we watch these two friends drink in the carefree air.
It reminded me of François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, a french film some will call perfect (although I beg to differ) about two male friends who educate each other and themselves and are completely inseparable. They indulge in the finest drinks, eat the most delicious food, and open their minds to classy art.
Whereas Frances and Sophie may be like Jules and Jim, they’re just as happy to spend time with each other, chatting in the park. Judging by the exuberance Frances emotes (along with the background instrumentals) when she receives a surprise tax rebate in her bank account, limited funds may also stop these two from diving into “the high life” as well.
Frances Ha’s climax is another similar parallel with Jules et Jim. As Sophie’s relationship with her boyfriend gets more serious, the two decide to move in – leaving Frances to scramble. She gets nervous about finding a new place (especially since she passed up on an offer in order to keep Sophie happy and keep the peace), but she gets even more nerve-wracked about the fact that Sophie’s life seems to be turning a corner and her’s isn’t.
Frances Ha isn’t a movie about Gerwig trying to maliciously keep her friend from succeeding, but rather a fascinating character study about someone who is scared to death about being “left behind” as she tries to keep up. In another movie, these instances of Frances trying to follow Sophie’s footsteps may have been played as spiteful as she tries to win back – or share – the spotlight. Luckily, Baumbach and his co-writer Gerwig are much smarter than that.
Gerwig plays Frances with carefulness, really watching that her character doesn’t become that “gosh darn cute pixie” that are notorious suspects in independent cinema. Frances is still gosh darn cute, but her emotions are very real. We root for Frances but with the same passion, we also want to tell her that change can be a good thing.
It all isn’t seeping in seriousness though. Frances Ha has a lot of funny and truly honest moments; like, that aforementioned tax rebate scene and awkward confrontations with just as awkward people.
A highlight of the movie is when Frances takes a private trip to Paris – suspiciously after Sophie mentions that her and her beau will be traveling as well. The scene is accompanied with Hot Chocolate’s disco classic Everyone’s A Winner which becomes more and more ironic as Frances’ trip goes from being playfully spontaneous to a miserable and embarrassing mistake.
I soon became smitten with Gerwig’s portrayal and with Frances Ha as a whole. It wins over audiences with its authenticity and quick-wittedness. It may resemble a highly acclaimed HBO series or a 1962 French film, but all in all, the film offers a buoyant joy to it that’s highly contagious and makes it stand on its own as one of this year’s biggest surprises.