Zach Haines ’14
You may already know director Noah Baumbach from the acclaimed “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), “Margot at the Wedding” (2007), or “Greenberg” (2010). In these films, Baumbach’s ability to craft portraits of uniquely difficult characters has drawn in big-name actors, including Nicole Kidman, Jeff Daniels, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Laura Linney. For his latest feature, “Frances Ha”, Baumbach collaborated with the talented, yet largely unknown, Greta Gerwig. Though she held sizeable role in the Duplass brothers’ mumblecore thriller Baghead (2008); made a cameo appearance in House of the Devil (2009); and held her own opposite Oscar nominees Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love; Gerwig’s capability as both an actress and a hilariously astute screenwriter come through for the first time in “Frances Ha”.
Developed from a series of short skits drafted by Gerwig, Frances Ha revolves around the film’s eponymous character, an aspiring dancer in New York City. Frances is best characterized by her own admittance, “I am not a real person yet”: she’s a 27-year-old Vassar graduate who teaches ballet lessons to toddlers at an upscale dance studio, she lives with her best friend in an apartment that neither of them can afford and she can’t even go out to a restaurant without her debit card being declined. Everything in Frances’ life is contingent on the generosity of her parents and the patience of her employer. When we first meet Frances, she is blissfully ignorant of this. It’s clear that this girl hasn’t learned a hard lesson in her life.
The one thing that holds Frances’ life together is her friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner) – the two are, to borrow Frances’ words, “the same person with different hair.” However, when Sophie moves to Tokyo with her fiancé, Frances delves deeper into her own inertia: she moves into an apartment with Benji (Michael Zegen) and Lev (Adam Driver, from HBO’s Girls) – the children of New York socialites who, unlike Frances, can afford to spend all day watching French cinema, collecting vinyls, and snapping obnoxious photos with vintage cameras. Needless to say, people like Benji and Lev do not inspire good habits in Frances. The film culminates in a series of outrageously bad decisions that set Frances further back than where she started. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for Frances, though she must endure a long, rather disheartening process before she begins to see it.
“Frances Ha” was at times difficult to watch: as a senior, I am currently living with the unrelenting fear of life after graduation. The character of Frances is a witty and bitterly realistic portrait of a person who never took the time to figure things out. As I watched Frances float through her twenties without making a step towards any of her ambitions, I couldn’t stop thinking that I could be Frances one day. Of course, this is what Baumbach and Gerwig were aiming for, and it’s a testament to the brilliance of their writing. The two have a keen ear for the vague, crass way that young people communicate with each other; for example, in one scene Frances criticizes Sophie’s fiancé by saying, “He’s the kind of guy who buys a leather sofa and is like . . . ‘I LOVE IT.’” What quality is she trying to pinpoint? I couldn’t name it, but somehow I know what she’s talking about. The two also have written pretentious New Yorkers to a T: they have repurposed for a different generation what Woody Allen has been doing for the past fifty years. The fact that Baumbach chose to alter the film’s coloration (the final product is in black and white) in postproduction also seems to reference Allen, whose black and white Manhattan (1979) fused contemporary New York life with old New York nostalgia.
In my opinion, “Frances Ha” is one of this year’s must-see films. It is a charming, well-written piece of comedy, and a welcome departure from the melodramas and biopics that will soon grace theatres during the pre-Oscars months. Fans of Baumbach’s work will not be disappointed, and anyone curious about one of the most intelligent and thoughtful emerging talents in Hollywood should definitely keep tabs on Greta Gerwig.