Review: Frances Ha

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner
Rating: 15

Her job’s a joke, she’s broke, her love life’s DOA.

“You’re going to hate this,” Chris sang at me on the way to the cinema. And to be fair, the initial signs weren’t good: it was a pretentious-sounding black-and-white film unapologetically crammed to the seams with hipsters. A film that many reviews had compared to Lena Dunham’s Girls, a series I had been convinced I was going to love but ended up abandoning before the credits rolled on the first episode because it was just so unbearably pleased with itself. A film in which the protagonist’s parents are played by the actress’s real parents, and two of the key roles are played by the children of celebrities. There was at least a small chance that I was going to loathe this film.

Surprise! I absolutely loved it. It’s a film that clearly stands or falls on how likeable you find the main character, because I can imagine that if you didn’t warm to Frances, then sitting through 86 minutes of her whimsically failing to live out her dreams in New York (IN BLACK AND WHITE) would be fairly excruciating, but there was just so much charm in Gerwig’s performance that I was on her side from the very beginning. This was my first experience of seeing her in anything, and I get the impression that a lot of the script (written by Gerwig and Baumbach) was somewhat autobiographical, but it stood on its own feet as a relatable story without ever feeling like a tragic vanity project.

The plot is not especially groundbreaking: apprentice dancer Frances is in her late 20s and hasn’t really broken through in her career (she’s still only tangentially attached to the company she works for, and even Frances’s low expectations of getting a full-time job there are clearly overly-optimistic), her love life is uneventful, she has no money, and the one thing that holds her life together is her best friend Sophie (Sumner), an exhausting nightmare of a person who clearly doesn’t value Frances as much as Frances values her. So far, so generation Y. But there’s something admirable about Frances’s approach to the world: she’s not willing to let her dreams go easily, but she’s also been knocked about enough by life at this point to know that she’s probably going to have to learn to compromise, whether that means finding somewhere else to live because Sophie wants to move into a dream apartment with someone Frances hates, or taking a low-status job at her old college just to make ends meet and stay remotely connected to her dream of being a dancer/choreographer after all her old company can offer her is an office job. While the film captured a lot of the awful things about being a young(ish) adult at this point in time, having no money and no prospects chief among them, this manages to avoid being a depressing film because of Frances’s optimism, and her gradual understanding that if all of your dreams don’t come true in the exact way you planned, it’s not the end of the world – you might still end up somewhere that turns out to be a good place.

Another great thing about this film was the way it constructed the relationships between the characters – I had little time for many of the tedious hipsters that Frances hung around with, but I totally bought why Frances wanted to be around them. Sophie in particular seemed like a horrendous human being, but in their scenes together it made sense to me that Frances was enraptured by her. Also, the dinner party scene in which Frances clearly doesn’t fit in with anyone else present and manages to make things worse every single time she opens her mouth was exquisitely well-observed – I doubt there’s a person watching who doesn’t remember being in Frances’s position, and being in the position of everyone else around her wishing this socially-oblivious fool would just stop talking, equally vividly. (One character who I could’ve happily seen a lot more of was Lev’s frank-speaking one-night-stand who talked uninhibitedly over a bagel breakfast about fucking Sophie’s brother.)

There were aspects of the film I was less keen on – it was a little meandering despite the slim running time, and I’m still not entirely sure it needed to be filmed in black-and-white for any reason other than self-justifying artiness, but despite all of my initial misgivings, none of the arty-fartiness was distracting enough to take away from the magnetism of Gerwig’s performance. I’m not sure if there was enough meat in the material for this performance to be rewarded come awards season, but it deserves to at least be in contention.

Coming Attractions:
None; I saw this in a hipster cinema that considered trailers to be WAY too commercial and preferred to remind me instead that there was still time to pick up a fine wine at the bar before the film started.

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