Hilarious, insightful, devastating, and jubilant, Frances Ha isn’t the sort of film one would expect to see from Noah Baumbach. Best known for his debilitating, hurtful dramedies like The Squid and the Whale or Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach is displaying an exciting new comedic voice and a completely different narrative rhythm than we’ve ever seen from him before. While he’s hardly the only filmmaker to try to do things a little differently, it’s safe to say that the real motivation behind this drastic shift is the presence of his muse, the wonderfully-talented Greta Gerwig.
Considering Gerwig began her ascendance to the mantle of “indie queen” in Baumbach’s Greenberg (the two are now dating, by the way), it’s a perfect bit of synergy to see them reunited in a passion project such as this. Her vibrant influence is all over the script, which she co-wrote alongside Baumbach, and has her as a hot mess of a 20-something New Yorker navigating that time when your dreams are still fresh, but slowly creeping out of reach as reality takes hold. She’s a live-wire, an aimless creative soul whose opportunity may never come. She works as a ballet understudy, meaning the career of her choice is by no means guaranteed, but then again nothing much in Frances’ life seems certain. In her mind, the only real guarantee is that she and her best friend/roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) will be together forever. “We’re like the same person”, Frances says, and that’s true to a certain extent. They both have odd lingo only they can understand, and love to play fight, but deep down they couldn’t be more different. Sophie has a steady job, and a boyfriend named “Patch” who Frances hates. Frances had a boyfriend, too, but they broke up because she basically chose Sophie over living with him. When Sophie decides to move out to live in Tribeca, Frances isn’t just hurt, she’s thrown for a world-shattering loop.
All of this may sound like a three-episode of HBO’s Girls, but Lena Dunham has never created characters as authentic as this. Nor has she touched on a female friendship that feels quite as lived-in and real as that between Frances and Sophie. Free from Dunham’s pretentious notions and Baumbach’s typical cynicism, the film takes a witty and observant look at how life can drive a wedge between life-long friends.
Without Sophie to learn on for support, Frances bounces around from place to place, but never getting comfortable anywhere. She dates a couple of guys casually, with Girls star Adam Driver as one of them, but as usual can’t find anything stable. She moves in with him and his buddy, who declares her “undateable”, but it isn’t long before she’s out on the street again looking for new friends to latch on to. As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, her relationship with Sophie is falling apart, and Frances is forced to deal with the prospect of being really and truly alone. In one heartbreaking, painful confrontation in a restaurant, Frances treats Sophie and Patch like dirt, writing them both off completely.
Even when she’s awful and at her selfish worst, Frances is still undeniably charming and appealing, perhaps because we can see where she’s coming from. She’s not a bad person; it’s just that she hasn’t quite figured out everything about herself yet. Unlike Baumbach’s usual stable of ugly curmudgeons, Frances’ quirks make her someone you want to help rather than run away screaming from. Gerwig’s unending likability goes a long way, but so does the intelligent writing which remains completely free of judgment.
Shot on the fly and in complete secret (the restaurant scene took over 40 takes!), there’s an unpredictability that keeps you on your toes. Each new location brings a different feel and tone, occasionally structured like a 1980s rock video, others paying homage to the free-flowing style of the French New Wave and the works of Francois Truffaut. There’s a surreal, magical quality that we’ve never seen from Baumbach but fits Gerwig to a perfect tee. Even the film’s hopeful, crowd-pleasing finale feels a little bit like Frances’ indulging in a little wish fulfillment. But if it is just a dream, it’s one we’ll gladly want to be a part of again and again.