Noah Baumbach's writing-directing work is rarely cheery. In fact, with 2005's "The Squid and the Whale
," 2007's "Margot at the Wedding
," and 2010's "Greenberg
," he has seemingly been in competition with himself to outdo the prickly characters and purveying pessimism of each successive film. All of them comedies that couldand didget very, very dark, they were the work of an undeniably gifted auteur who had begun to not just explore, but wallow, in the unpleasant corners of humanity. There are brighter rays of hope in his latest effort, "Frances Ha," and maybe it has something to do with his lead actress and screenwriting collaborator, the naturally quirky, incandescent Greta Gerwig (2012's "Damsels in Distress
"). She was far and away the highlight of "Greenberg
"her breakthrough roleand the two seem to work well together, particularly when she's front-and-center. As a coming-of-age story about a young woman in her late-twenties adrift in the Big Apple, "Frances Ha" would also make a fitting companion piece to another Gerwig starrer, 2012's smart and liberating "Lola Versus
27-year-old Frances Halliday (Greta Gerwig) is so content subleasing an apartment with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), that when her boyfriend, Dan (Michael Esper), invites her to move in with him, she turns him down. Out of frustration and feelings of being slighted, he breaks up with hera blow that only magnifies when Sophie announces soon after that she herself is moving in with her respective boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger). An apprentice at a prestigious dance company, Frances clings to the hope that she will one day be invited to move beyond her menial understudy status. While waiting for this to happen, she knocks around from one living situation to the nextfirst with buoyant male pals Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), and later in a college dorm room and a rustic cottage in Poughkeepsiewhile watching as her relationship with Sophie grows ever more distant. With everyone around her moving forward, Frances can't help but feel like she's stuck in a hopeless rut. When, too, will her adult life begin?
"Frances Ha" was shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Sam Levy, but one barely notices save for in the opening minutes and a later segment that sends our protagonist on the saddest trip to Paris probably ever captured on film. Taking a stylistic page from Woody Allen during his "Manhattan" era of the late-'70s, the film trades in romance for a less-traveled topic: the bonds between platonic best friends and the way that being grown-ups with different lives and responsibilities can cause people to drift apart. It's a bittersweet subject that happens to the best of us at one time or another, but is rarely explored in movies. Gerwig, who clearly identifies with Frances' place in the world, brings an authentic sensitivity to her relationship with Sophieeven when the two of them, at the onset, appear so very close that one can't quite believe there's nothing sexual going on between them.
What is particularly nice about "Frances Ha" is that it never turns into one of those films where all of Frances' troubles dissipate simply by getting a boyfriend. She is single for the bulk of the story and has other things to worry about besides which hot guy is going to sweep her off her feet. In fact, the subject scarcely comes up as she navigates the disappointments of her expected profession and must reorganize her expectations in order to find a place, both personally and within her career, where she is comfortable and content and able to stand on her own two feet without relying on anybody else. In the interim, director Noah Baumbach and co-writer Greta Gerwig exhibit a flair for comedic observation and dialogue. When Frances receives a tax rebate and gleefully invites Lev to dinner, her treat, she is disappointed to discover that only cash or creditno debit cardsare allowed. "I'm sorry," she apologizes, "I'm not a real person yet." Later, after discovering that Lev and Benji smoke inside their apartment, she muses, "This makes me feel like a bad mother in 1987."
From the outside looking in, "Frances Ha" doesn't appear to be breaking much new ground; one could carve out an entirely new genre just with movies about young people trying to make it in Manhattan. What this one has that most of the others don't, though, is the near-incomparable Greta Gerwig, who gives Frances a fire, an exuberance, and a three-dimensional uniqueness that ensures the viewer never sways from her side. Mickey Sumner (2008's "Last Chance Harvey
")real-life daughter of Stingis an offbeat but exceedingly perfect match as Sophie, but this is Gerwig's show all the way. Whether she's dancing down the city streets to David Bowie's "Modern Love," suffering the indignity of being told, "You seem a lot older [than Sophie], but less grown up," or taking matters into her own hands and discovering the creative satisfaction of choreographing her own shows, Francesand Gerwigis a sympathetic, naturally funny original, earning every right to be happy and successful. Things won't always be easy, but somehow they work themselves out just as they're supposed to.