Film review: Frances Ha - Gerwig fulfils Greta expectations - Reviews - Films - The Independent

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week