Neither of these should be the primary factor in making your decision of whether or not to take in Frances Ha, the quirky new indie dramedy directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and shot in black-and-white, but there are two things that I want you to know before you enter the theatre. The first, of potential interest to mid-Hudson readers, is that there’s a whole long section shot on the campus of Vassar College, Baumbach’s alma mater. The other alert is intended for all who saw King of Hearts a gazillion times back in the ‘70s but not once since: Yes, that’s where you’ve heard those Georges Delerue themes before – the ones that keep recurring in the Frances Ha soundtrack. Now that you know, you can relax and pay attention to this charming oddball of a movie instead of having flashbacks of Genevieve Bujold walking a tightrope.
And it does take some paying attention, because the title character – portrayed by Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach – is a scattered mess whose rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness verbalizations will leave sleepy viewers in the dust. Not that she’s all that complicated a character: a semi-employed 27-year-old dancer who is trying to find herself – and an affordable place to live that lasts for more than a few months – in contemporary New York City. Coming off like Annie Hall on steroids, Frances is a confused, well-meaning misfit, desperately trying to scrounge out a living as an artist while surrounded by trust fund babies who can afford to spend years navel-gazing, spouting pretentious artsy talk and perfecting the art of spin to cover up their lack of professional progress.
In fact, the shallow, self-congratulatory 20-something New Yorkers who make up most of Frances’ short-term roommates are so annoying that it took this reviewer some time to settle in and decide not to hate this movie, and some viewers are likely to find themselves wondering, “Were we really that obnoxious at that age?” What makes it all the more excruciating at first is the naturalness with which the excellent cast inhabits these off-putting personae. They’re funny, but not in a cable-TV-series-young-New-Yorker sort of way; one can imagine real people living like this. They’re not serial killers; they’re just pains in the butt.
That goes in spades for Frances herself. It’s a tour-de-force performance by Gerwig, so raw and intermittently unlikable that one pulls back at first, until it sinks in that this is just really fine acting and probably not a writing-down of the way the actress is in real life. The character starts out light on self-esteem and prone to impulsive outbursts of social awkwardness that make her, in the words of Benji (Michael Zegen), one of her male roommates, “undatable.” But she truly plunges into a downward spiral of self-sabotage when her best friend and former college roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, the daughter of Sting) gets more serious about the boyfriend they both used to make fun of and starts pulling away from Frances.
She can manage without a boyfriend, but without her BFF, Frances is rudderless. She turns down decent-but-not-artsy-enough job offers, starts lying to herself and others about what she’s doing and makes really bad choices on a whim, like flying to Paris for two wasted days of jet lag when she can’t even afford her rent. She’s exasperating, and yet you can’t look away from this character, who is onscreen throughout almost the entire movie.
Not only do her lines, however much they degenerate into strings of spacey non-sequiturs, seem completely spontaneous and natural to the character, but Gerwig’s command of physical acting is formidable. Frances is a dancer, if not a very successful one, so it makes sense that she can appear boundlessly graceful at times, pirouetting her way through crosswalks when she’s having a rare good day. But one of her friends accuses her of walking like a man, and on bad days she stomps around like a troglodyte, flat-footed, bent-kneed and pigeon-toed, spine curved forward under her ubiquitous daypack. The character is written as less pretty than Gerwig naturally is, and the actress has the courage to transmute herself into a not-particularly-feminine klutz who mostly careens from disappointment to disappointment.
But what’s most surprising about Frances Ha is the revelation that a male director can tell a cinematic story that is so spot-on about the power and pull of deep female friendships forged in youth. It seems that Baumbach totally gets it (maybe with a little help from his co-author) that two heterosexual college girls, or older roommates, might want to sleep in the same bed sometimes, just to cuddle, with no lesbian overtones whatsoever – and that the relationship is in no way diminished by the fact that one nags the other not to wear socks in bed.
BFFs, like old mostly-happily-married couples, have their long-established rituals of complaining about each other’s irritating habits, which get trotted out at intervals and then quickly dropped. The bond remains, and it continues to nourish the spirit even when the vicissitudes of one’s work or love life deplete it. Nothing can come between them for very long. From first scene to last, that’s the clear message of Frances Ha. It’s a romantic comedy – without the romance.