“Frances Ha” is the utterly charming, often hilarious and surprisingly moving new film from writer-director Noah Baumbach. The effervescent Greta Gerwig, both as co-writer and performer, gives the film a buoyancy missing in Baumbach’s earlier films. Much like “Easy A,” which made Emma Stone a star, “Frances Ha” will cement Gerwig as one; she plays the immensely likable and intelligent, but flawed, title character and is as adept at pulling off one-liners as she is conveying vulnerable emotions.
Shot in black and white, “Frances Ha” manages to be nostalgic while remaining completely contemporary, iPhones and all. The aesthetic is meant to invoke the look of early Truffaut (“The 400 Blows”), and the film does have the whimsy of New Wave films like Truffaut’s “Small Change” and Godard’s “Band of Outsiders.” The film also shares its humor, its fast-paced witticisms masking darker emotions and its New York setting with Woody Allen’s films.
Yet the material has more in common with the television series “Girls”–not the sexual antics, but the story of smart 20-somethings in the difficult post-college years, finding their way through changing friendships, relationships and, in the case of Frances, frequently changing addresses. By taking this a very specific subculture–privileged, white, New York hipsters, which isn’t nearly as awful to see as it sounds–the film finds universal themes of loneliness, friendship and the way people inevitably grow apart even when friendships don’t completely dissolve.
Frances Halliday (Gerwig) is a Vassar grad, living in Brooklyn with her best friend from college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). She’s an apprentice at a modern dance company who dreams of being a permanent member but may be better suited as a choreographer. When explaining her job at a party, she has difficulty because, she says, “She doesn’t really do it.” When the film begins, she breaks up with her current boyfriend, ostensibly and hilariously–though not actually–because she feels she can’t move in with him, having committed to a lease with Sophie.
Sophie and Frances–the core relationship of the film–seem tied at the hip, occasionally referring to themselves as the same person, in an overtly clingy way that has an inherent expiration date. Sophie, like many of Frances’s friends, is more affluent and more successful in her career, a frequent contributor to Frances’s insecurity. When Sophie decides to move to Manhattan, which Frances can’t afford, and gets increasingly engrossed in her romantic relationship, Frances is forced to deal with new ground (and new homes) and the ensuing shifting relationship. The film is smart about the space that widens between Frances and Sophie; they never stop caring about each other or even knowing each other fairly well, but they stop being as necessary to each other’s existence and sense of self.
“Frances Ha” is Baumbach’s best film. His trademark perceptive insights about paralysis and the difficulty connecting with others are still present, but they are applied to more easily relatable characters rather than infuriatingly oblivious narcissists. Gone, too, are the navel-gazing pretensions of “Squid and the Whale” and “Kicking and Screaming.” In “Frances Ha,” Frances and her friends are still figuring it out, but we get the sense that eventually they will.