Jonathan Romney on Frances Ha: Even hipster goddesses get the blues

Greta Gerwig is adorable to a fault in this contrived portrait of the growing pains of a young New Yorker

The American actress-writer Greta Gerwig is what they call an "It Girl" – although being an It Girl or Boy is no longer what it was. These days, it simply means: "You're It – you get to be on a magazine cover this week."

To be truly possessed of "It" – some indefinable, ineffable, glimmering onscreen attribute – is rare indeed. Whatever It is, though, Gerwig has it. An alumna of the no-budget US "mumblecore" school, Gerwig had an undeniable Star-Is-Born moment in Noah Baumbach's 2010 comedy Greenberg, then she came on like a reincarnation of the Hollywood comedy goddesses of yore in Whit Stillman's unapologetically arch Damsels in Distress.

Gerwig's new film with Baumbach, which they've co-written, might be classified as mumblecore deluxe: a hip, half-gritty, half-glossy comedy that's also transparently a love letter to its star. Frances Ha is a good-naturedly nervy portrait of a young New Yorker trying to sort out her mess of a life. Not a catastrophe, just a mess. In her kitchen, Frances complains, "I'm trying to make a frittata but it's really more of a scramble" – and Frances Ha shows her trying to find the right consistency for her life's frittata.

An apprentice in a dance company, Frances has a flatmate Sophie (an impressive, spiky Mickey Sumner), with whom she loves hanging out and doing crazy things: tap dancing in the park, peeing on the subway, cooking up plans for world domination ("So many honorary degrees!"). Then Sophie decides that she wants to live with her broker boyfriend – and worse still, takes the kettle.

Unusually for a contemporary film about a single woman trying to sort herself out in Manhattan, this one isn't about romance – although a forlorn running joke has Frances constantly referred to as "undateable".

Instead, the film is structured around the various places where Frances finds herself living – intertitles flash up addresses from Brooklyn to Chinatown to a PO Box in Poughkeepsie, where she spends the summer waitressing at her alma mater, Vassar College.

With her gangling moves and love of play fighting ("It's super fun!"), Frances is an exuberant dork, the sort who'll run down the street and execute a sudden perfect pratfall. At times, she's almost a female equivalent of Kramer in Seinfeld, and oddly asexual. But a little Frances goes a long way; she can be quite gratingly adorable. What redeems her is the natural strangeness of Gerwig's manner: her slurred throaty diction, her restless face, as if she's constantly swallowing down some inconvenient thought that's popped into her head.

The script is full of goofily urbane one-liners (Sophie, looking round the Chinatown pad: "This apartment is very… aware of itself"). And hipsters will enjoy the homages to French cinema: along with Sam Levy's handsomely rough-edged black-and-white photography, there are lashings of veteran composer Georges Delerue on the soundtrack.

I like the fact that this is a very loosely sewn film, made from scraps and fragments of varying size. There are nice self-enclosed sequences: Frances's Christmas with her folks (played by Gerwig's own parents), and an impromptu weekend in Paris, where Frances sleeps through an entire day. But you can't get away from a feeling of inconsequentiality: when Frances is broke, you know it's only a temporary, boho-chic Adventure in Brokeness (and the dialogue knowingly points to this).

For all its merits, I can't say I enjoyed Frances Ha that much: it's droll rather than actually funny, and I didn't feel that inclined to spend time with its characters, who are generally tiresome but not in an interesting way (unlike Ben Stiller's anti-hero in the memorably sour Greenberg). And perhaps Frances Ha is a little too neatly a film of its moment: with American independent cinema largely in the doldrums, little could be more sure-fire for an art-house crowd right now than a New York femme-com that's sweeter and less scabrous than Lena Dunham's TV series Girls (whose gawky regular Adam Driver plays one of Frances' flatmates).

Watching Frances Ha is a bit like getting an invitation to a hip downtown party that's going to be a lot of fun – and Greta Gerwig's going to be there! Only you find it's not nearly as enjoyable as you hoped, no one can sustain a coherent conversation, and even Gerwig's trying a bit too hard.

Baumbach's film gives the impression that it's easy-going, natural and off the cuff, and I wish it were. It's just … very aware of itself.

Critic's Choice

The tough Swedish thriller Easy Money gives a streetwise twist to the boom in Scandi-noir, while Grace Kelly and Ray Milland star in Hitchcock's re-released Dial M For Murder (1954), in which the Master offers his wry take on 3D thrills.

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