Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen.
Rated: R for strong language, sexual situations
Runtime: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
Bottom line: An indie comedy worth seeking out
“Frances Ha” is one of the buzziest movies of the year within the specialty film market — you know, that category of movies where superheroes are not allowed and characters possess remarkable powers of self-examination.
Co-written by its star, Greta Gerwig, and its director, Noah Baumbach, the film has been the hit of several festivals and earned $137,398 on only four screens during its opening weekend.
This black-and-white indie comedy is clearly hitting nerves with audiences, many of whom have likely been in situations similar to the title character.
Frances is a spirited 27-year-old woman living in Manhattan with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), apprenticing with a dance company and surrounded by artists. She and Sophie have long talks in outdoor cafes, share cigarettes on their fire escape and sleep in the same bed. They are so close that they like to say they are the same person with different hair.
Frances is living what many young women would describe as a dream life. If only adulthood would stop intruding.
When Sophie moves in with her boorish boyfriend, Frances finds herself adrift, both physically and spiritually. She bounces from one apartment to another for the rest of the film, relying on the kindness of strangers while she tries to figure out what kind of grown-up she should be.
In most movies, Frances would be the manic pixie dream girl, the carefree young woman who helps a male protagonist rediscover the joys of life. That character type is stripped of any depth whatsoever, because we are not there to deal with her problems.
“Frances Ha” is approximately what you get when you make the manic pixie dream girl the protagonist and allow her to be a fully formed character.
Not that Frances is fully formed. She openly acknowledges that she is not.
At one point, she receives a tax refund and deposits it in the bank. She beams with feelings of adulthood.
To celebrate, she invites a boy to dinner, her treat. But when the bill arrives, Frances’ card doesn’t work. She says to both the waitress and her date, “I’m sorry, I’m not a real person yet.” It’s a brilliant use of double entendre.
To most people, Frances is charming in short bursts. She says random things at dinner and spontaneously opens her heart in disarming ways.
Yet, as much as she lies to herself and everyone else about how her life is going, eventually Frances can no longer deny that she indeed has not yet become a real, adult person.
Frances embodies the aimlessness and anxiety that have practically become a standard element of life for Americans in their mid-20s. That is, if you can afford a period of aimlessness.
Frances is also a woman of modest means living among the privileged. She doesn’t even know where she might be living next week, yet she finds herself at dinner parties with people who live on Manhattan’s upper west side and also own apartments in Paris.
The movie is about many things — friendship, love, happiness, growing up, class — but Gerwig and Baumbach wisely allow those themes to remain ambiguous. And Gerwig plays Frances with captivating energy.
“Frances Ha” fits into the tradition of the French New Wave (the movie makes numerous references to that period of film history) and Woody Allen’s urbane comedy, but don’t read too much into those comparisons.
Despite all the allusions to Francois Truffaut and the egregious influence of Woody Allen, “Frances Ha” would not rank among the best in either filmmaker’s body of work.
However, American cinema has suffered for so very long from a lack of smart, witty comedies that it’s worth getting excited about “Frances Ha.”
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.