It’s hard to really dislike Frances Ha as Gerwig’s performance, the breezy pace, and quick-witted script work like gangbusters for the most part.
Noah Baumbach, the director of Greenberg and The Squid and the Whale, shows a more comedic side in Frances Ha. Co-writing with star Greta Gerwig, the film plays out like a beneficial compromise between the two collaborators. Baumbach keeps his focus on characters who seemingly flail through life, while Gerwig injects a playfulness and light sense of humour that keeps things from wallowing in despair. The film feels like a new, and welcome, direction in Baumbach’s career, as Frances Ha is one of his finest works to date.
Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a 27 year old barely getting by in New York City. She struggles to be a professional dancer, working as an understudy and dance tutor for children. The only constant in her life is her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), but that soon changes when Sophie moves out for an apartment in Tribeca. She moves into a new place with two roommates (Adam Driver & Michael Zegen) who use their rich relatives to fund their lifestyles.
The rest of the film follows Frances as she tries to sort her life out despite a series of roadblocks and poor decisions along the way. Gerwig, who’s already shown herself to be a terrific actress, unsurprisingly gives one of the year’s best performances. Gerwig makes Frances a sympathetic character, even when she makes bone-headed decisions like rushing to Paris for a weekend or drunkenly embarrassing herself in front of friends. There are moments, like when Frances says goodbye to her parents (played by Gerwig’s own mother and father) after a Christmas vacation, that make it impossible not to root for her to succeed by the end. Sumner also does a great job as Sophie, who expresses the strained nature of her friendship to Frances almost entirely through body language.
It’s in these moments where Baumbach painfully shows how stagnant Frances’ life is, even as she tries to avoid what seems like the inevitable. Scenes like a dinner party, where Frances uses every opportunity to tell the more successful guests how badly she’s doing, are horrifying to watch unfold. The feeling of abandonment coming from everyone around you seemingly moving on to better things in their life is perfectly captured. Seeing Frances go back to work at her alma mater is a perfectly suitable and heartbreaking image that sums up those emotions.
Unfortunately, as the redemptive last act kicks in, the conclusion gets too rushed. Earlier on, when someone suggests Frances get an office job to help her get by while she figures things out, she replies with, “You say it like it’s easy.” Once she actually does take that advice, it only takes a brief montage before everything appears to be working out. It feels like a betrayal of everything that came before it, and when the film cuts to a party that everyone from the film attends, the effect is jarring. It’s an unusually neat way to wrap things up considering how much more nuanced things were up to that point.
The final scene, where the title is explained in a great shot I won’t spoil, wraps things up nicely enough that it’s easy to not mind the rushed ending. It’s hard to really dislike Frances Ha as Gerwig’s performance, the breezy pace, and quick-witted script work like gangbusters for the most part. Baumbach and Gerwig seem like a great team, and hopefully Frances Ha signifies the beginning of more collaborations in the future.