Film review: Frances Ha - Gerwig fulfils Greta expectations

4.00

(15)

The New Yorker Noah Baumbach is one of the drollest and smartest film-makers around, but his comedies aren't especially charming, or even that funny. His breakthrough film here was The Squid and the Whale (2005), a terrific portrait of a Brooklyn family imploding in which Jeff Daniels, as the touchy egomaniac professor, gave the performance of his life.

Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh were also good in Margot at the Wedding (2007), though their petulant rivalry and neediness soured the movie into something unwatchable. In his last feature, Greenberg (2010), Baumbach seemed simply to back the wrong horse, training the spotlight on Ben Stiller's self-pitying depressive when it ought to have been on Greta Gerwig's adorable but unconfident single girl.

He has righted that particular wrong by putting Gerwig front and centre in Frances Ha, a comedy of Manhattan manners which, true to form, is highly accomplished without being uproariously funny. Gerwig (Baumbach's girlfriend and co-screenwriter) plays Frances, a young woman caught between the awkwardness of youth and the lengthening shadow of adult responsibility. She's strapped for cash, and fears losing her uncertain foothold at a struggling dance company.

When her boyfriend asks her to move in with him she declines, the reason being she's inseparable from her flatmate-cum-soulmate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting), her best friend since college; as far as Frances is concerned, "We're the same person, with different hair." The boyfriend retreats to lick his wounds.

Her fond illusions of togetherness are torpedoed, however, when Sophie announces that she's moving to another apartment in TriBeCa. Worse, she's going out with a guy named Patch. This comes as news to Frances, who now realises what Sophie was doing on her mobile phone all day. Has love withered while she wasn't looking? Somewhat forlorn, she finds a room to rent with two affluent layabouts, bedhopping Lev (Adam Driver) and luckless Benji (Michael Zegen), who's supposed to be writing a script for "Gremlins 3". Benji at once admires Frances and believes her to be "undateable".

Some of the best scenes happen between these two. Her: "Do I look old to you?" Him: "No. Yes. How old?" Her: "Older than I am. Older than 27." Him: "No... 27 is old, though." I thought this exchange droll enough to scribble down, though reproduced here it doesn't sound all that. This goes for the entire film; you listen to its unfailingly dry wit with a smile on your face, but you hardly ever laugh.

One major compensation is the sense of a character being presented to us with almost novelistic intimacy. Frances isn't an instantly lovable woman. She has a self-absorption that's very New York, and she can be obtuse (unto deaf) about social nuance. She misses obvious cues. At a dinner party with people she doesn't really know her nervousness inclines her to babble about friends in a slightly boring way – but then she suddenly switches tack to riff on her idea of true love, and it sounds like an impromptu poem.

Gerwig superbly incarnates the contradictions of this insecure woman. She looks rather ungainly for a dancer, though she can execute a perfect headstand at a moment's notice. Running back to a restaurant after a frantic search for an ATM she falls over, then staggers on, bleeding. She also has uncouth table manners, which are possibly less endearing than the scriptwriters believe. No matter. What the film subtly reveals is Frances's inner grace, of less use to a dancer, of course, but of incalculable significance for a human being. After a waitressing gig at her old college she returns late and weary to her bedroom, only to find a young student slumped in the corridor, weeping. What's a stranger to do?

The other notable appeal of the film is its beautiful surface. Shot in black-and-white, it tips its hat to an earlier romance of the city, Woody Allen's 1979 film Manhattan, and to Gordon Willis's peerless photography. That running scene (before Frances takes a flyer) is a fond reminder – and tribute to – Allen himself hurrying along the streets at the film's end, with George Gershwin's lovely music swelling in the background. Baumbach's choice of French film composer Georges Delerue for the upbeat mood is an adequate substitute.

While the film is, at heart, about a kind of loneliness, it doesn't oppress the audience with it, nor does it try to link Frances's emotional troubles with an unhappy upbringing: when she returns home for Christmas to Sacramento, Cal, the mood is one of exuberant Dickensian cheer. Your mum and dad don't always fuck you up. Her impulsive trip to Paris for a jet-lagged weekend is a failure, but again the film skates over it.

Perhaps the black-and-white also brings out a submerged nostalgia for the likes of Frances, who as an impecunious striver is surely a dying breed. Who these days can exist in Manhattan without a high-paying job or family money? Her shiftless flatmates Lev and Benji may dress like students but they still consider hiring a maid for the apartment. As Sophie acidly remarks, "The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich."

In real terms, Frances isn't poor; in Manhattan terms, she's one up from a panhandler.The script understands this, and puts a brave face on things. Sometimes, accepting one's limitations can bring contentment, even wisdom. At 27 Frances may worry she's "undateable", but this sweetly melancholic film knows otherwise, right down to the final moments that explain the title. Not funny ha-ha, but in the Baumbach way, funny ha.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent