“I’m not a real person yet,” Frances (Greta Gerwig) tells her latest date by way of explanation for why she doesn’t have a credit card, but the statement applies to pretty much every aspect of her life in Noah Baumbach’s witty and wonderful Frances Ha. A 27-year-old New Yorker with spotty employment and housing prospects, Frances watches as her friends and acquaintances enter into stable romantic relationships, achieve career success and seem (at least outwardly) fulfilled with their lives. Meanwhile, she struggles for recognition at the modern dance company where she works as an apprentice and pours all of her emotional energy into her relationship with her best friend/platonic soul mate Sophie (Mickey Sumner).
Although the episodic movie, co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig, follows Frances as she careens from one living situation and dubious employment opportunity to another, at its core it’s a heartfelt examination of friendship, in particular the kind of intimate female friendship that can be more meaningful than any romance. It’s Sophie’s decision to move in with her boyfriend and out of the Brooklyn apartment she and Frances share that sets the movie in motion, that leads Frances’ slow-building identity crisis to consume her life. And while she spends the movie trying to kick-start her career and her love life and find a place she can truly call home, all Frances really cares about is regaining her connection with her best friend.
That may sound melancholy, but Frances Ha is easily Baumbach’s warmest and most upbeat film to date, and certainly a departure from the caustic, cynical tone of his most recent films. Like the title characters of Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg (which co-starred Gerwig), Frances is socially awkward and sometimes off-putting, but she’s much more kind-hearted and likable than those characters, and her story has a corresponding sense of optimism.
Shot in gorgeous black and white by Sam Levy, Frances Ha recalls the look of Woody Allen’s Manhattan and the tone of a number of early Allen dramedies, perfectly balancing its rich, insightful character study with plenty of genuinely funny moments. Gerwig is charming and fascinating as Frances, making her flaws just as endearing as her strengths (which are many, even if she doesn’t realize it). Frances Ha tells a small, brief story (the movie runs barely 80 minutes), but there’s a wealth of emotion and humanity in that modest package.