Release Date: May 17th, 2013 (US limited); July 26th, 2013 (UK)
Genre: Comedy; Drama; Romance
Starring: Greta Gerwig
There isn’t really a plot to Noah Baumbach’s low-key indie drama Frances Ha. Certainly not one of any conventional sort. We are thrown straight into the life of our central protagonist, the eponymous Frances (Greta Gerwig), without a proper introduction. From opening to closing she spends her time apartment hunting (this is the film’s central crisis), though Frances doesn’t seem all that worked up about her uncertain predicament. The screenplay, penned by Gerwig and Baumbach, is very loose — you get the feeling there was a lot of improvisation during filming.
And yet the whole thing bumbles along with excitable charm and an internal confidence born, perhaps, out of experience. It could be a Woody Allen venture: title cards pop up every so often detailing the various locations Frances attempts to settle (primarily around New York), and the nomad herself fits Allen’s ditzy mould. When she isn’t spending time with her best mate, who sports glasses with enormous lenses by the way, Frances is training to become a dancer. Unfortunately she ain’t quite up to the required standard and, in New York, triers don’t get paid: “I can’t even get outta the house on my feet”.
Characters often mumble incoherences, blabbing one minute about unaffordable rent bills and the next about finger injuries. In reality, despite what Aaron Sorkin would have us believe, we probably spend much of our time conversing in a similar fashion. Not that Baumbach’s film reflects real life: there is a scene where our luckless protagonist gallantly offers to pay the bill following a meal with a potential boyfriend (the body of her previous beau is still warm at this point), only for her card to be declined. Rather than letting Adam Driver’s Lev Shapiro — if that is his real name — do the honours, Frances bolts out of the restaurant and scampers around the neighbourhood looking for a cash point. She finds one eventually, reappearing at the table with some money and a randomly bloodied arm.
You laugh because the whole scenario is utterly bonkers, and it is one that cements the film’s reputation as a bible for clumsy folk. Frances Ha is like the Friends movie finally realised, only every character is Phoebe. This hodgepodge of kookiness is actually fairly endearing and lends itself to the overarching notion of misadventure. It transpires Frances is actually a pretty good dancer (“You were great tonight”), but her instructor opts to cut her from the Christmas play anyway. Is Frances the unluckiest person alive or is she simply too unprepared, her moment-to-moment style of living an inescapable and fruitless trap? Regardless, you stick with her because she refuses to give up her creative passion. That is admirable.
These underplayed indie outings are often left wide open when it comes to accusations of baselessness, and there is a sense that Baumbach only shot in black-and-white because there happened to be a spare roll lying around. But I don’t think the film aspires to be intentionally pithy. Indeed, there is a pithiness in the sense that it’s a quirky drama without an A-to-B plot and C-to-D script, but that’s just how it is in Baumbach’s New York. Another apartment dweller, Benji (Michael Zegen), wants to write for Saturday Night Live and suitably spends his days watching movies, presumably because procrastination is the key to comedic success.
Greta Gerwig plays Frances with a childlike innocence: she sleeps with the door ajar; she turns to her parents in a time of need; she engages in play fights with other resistant lodgers. There is even a moment where the camera cuts to her teaching a group of youngsters ballet, and she looks right at home. Grinning with a genuine smile, Gerwig superbly manages to captivate through a waft of potential annoyance, and as such you see and sympathise with the fragility bubbling beneath Frances’ surface.
Elegantly inelegant, the daydreamer relentlessly apologises to people when she’s probably only at fault two-thirds of the time. Solutions are right there at her fingertips yet she keeps washing her hands — a temporary job at the dance studio that would earn her some cash becomes available, but she is initially too impulsive (fed up with speculative opportunities?) to accept. The supporting players all contribute too, particularly Grace Gummer whose dissociative air is a terrific counterbalance to Gerwig’s friendliness.
Paul McCartney and David Bowie are part of a soundtrack that hops tactfully from in vogue pop to classical strings to early Hollywood-era romance. Sam Levy’s cinematography bears a trace of Wes Anderson — the camera often adopts a still frame that zips back and forth between characters in conversation. The film is generally mad, makes little sense, and exists in a hyper-surreal world where people do silly things and still manage to get by. But it is addictive and funny and sweet, and that’s all that matters really.
Images copyright (©): ICF Films