Frances Halladay is 27, living in New York City, but without much of a plan. What’s important to her is that she’s enjoying the day . “So what are we going to do with our day!?” she says to her bestie Sophie while doing a hand stand. Sophie is played cooly by Mickey Sumner (Sting’s daughter) in a way that has her easily dissecting , say, a rich boy’s apartment for Frances — “This apartment is very aware of itself.” Eventually Sophie, like most twenty somethings, has to become aware of herself too . She starts dating a finance man, someone the friends used to make fun of together by appropriating some hip hop-isms with his name, Patch. First Sophie moves out of their apartment and later gets engaged to the provider.
Frances adores her friend and takes the break-up hard. But being bouncy, she finds a guy at a party, Lev ( Girls’ Adam Driver). Frances is continually clumsy and hurled into comedic situations in this movie, but the jungle of the city requires craft nonetheless. She goes out on a date with Lev, where he shows her pictures on his phone of the cool media jobs he has had (“Do you know who his father is?” Sophia has alerted her). Frances pays for the dinner with Lev anyway. At home he makes a pass and with one funny bump of the shoulder Frances deflects his hand. The woman has defended herself in the wild city. As a reward she gets to live with Lev and his roommate, who develops an instant crush on Frances. Her required payment is postponed until she can pay full rent, but the place is expensive. Her only job is at the dance company, where she is an apprentice. It’s not even a guarantee that she will get paid for the Christmas show. But it’s what she loves to do and she refuses to give up on it. From outside point of view shots we see she is a spirited dancer, but not exactly talented.
From here Frances wanders into Paris on a whim after talking about old friends at a dinner party; she heroically brings a copy of Proust to browse as she wanders the city searching for something about herself. After this jaunt and faced with the news that the dance company she works for only wants her to work behind a desk, she goes back to her old college where the current students tell her what she has been hearing all movie: she’s 27, but looks even older than that. She finally finds more work as a temporary RA and waitress/pourer. We get comedic dinner party gags when Frances is assigned to follow a Senator. On the flip side is a scene of great pathos. Frances, tired but never deflated, rounds the dorm hall and sits next to a young student who is crying in the hallway. “I’m just going to sit here,” she assures the student. Sometimes that’s all a person needs to do.
The director Noah Baumbach has noticeably found a muse in Frances. She is a collaboration from the writing end between the director and the actress that is Frances, Greta Gerwig. With somewhat quick edits and with a roving camera, Baumbach has made a Spring-vibed picture in black and white, documenting life for young procrastinators (his audience in “Kicking and Screaming,” “The Squid and the Whale” and others). If his last movie “Greenberg” was claustrophobic inside Ben Stiller’s acting out palpable depression, here we notice the fresh air Greta brings to this work.
The temptation for a critic, or an antsy reviewer, like me, who is in his late 20s and not fully “realized,” is to say Baumbach lacks the design imagination of his frequent collaborator Wes Anderson, or the heavy duty drama ambition of the great American director PT Anderson. That is, Baumbach never seems to write about adults, or at least not ones who aren’t academic or artsy. Or even worse, the temptation is that if you are young, college educated, energetic, but creatively unrealized, a part of you doesn’t want to admit that the movie on screen has figured your life out. Gerwig and Baumbach have the young hipster pegged as someone who has spent their paycheck right when they got it, dabbled in an art form, got ridiculous after four cocktails, broke up with a partner for reasons that seem like kind of an accident. The best and worst qualities of the hipster are exposed when Frances gets finance guy Patch to buy the table a bottle of Belvedere vodka. Frances then gets mad at Patch and Sophie for being engaged and happy, and leaves, taking the bottle home for herself.
Ah, here was my life. How many times had I weaseled my way into a free show, or taken the beer from the fridge because I felt pretty secure in the fact that I had the right “spirit.” Like myself, Frances finds herself at innumerable social gatherings where her supposed peers are more together and making more money than her—largely because she has decided to live life by the day, and seems to pursue nothing useful. Like Frances, I have a project in my head. Hers is an evening of dance, mine, well, you know, it’s still hard to put it into words, but it’s there. Sometimes it’s hard to communicate that to society, and judging by Frances’s table manners she’s kind of stopped trying to be understood. The company director at the dance center likes Frances’ personality and offers her an office job; she doesn’t want to take it but she may eventually have to.
In the grand history of cinema (Noah is a student), these may seem like quibbles. But Baumbach wouldn’t be making this kind of movie if he didn’t speak to these issues. And somehow “Frances Ha” is his most durable movie, and quite more lovely than the sum of these concerns.
For one, it’s a natural portrait of that important thing: friendship. The chemistry between the two best girl friends cannot be faked. Like in the most together families, they seem to speak their own language. Frances interrupts a talk with her boyfriend to greet her friend calling with a “wassup!” that confuses the dude. The two girls lay together in bed and one can tell the other is wearing socks, and asks her to please remove them. When they break up Frances tries to play fight in the park with her new friend Rachel (“The Newsroom’s” Grace Gummer). But outside the special world of friendship, such an act seems insane to Rachel, to the rest of the world.
There’s an underlying melancholy that naturally follows Baumbach being a funny sponge, an artist who loves New York. A certain maturity of vision has shown him that money is pushing people like Frances, his people, out of the life there. She is barely humored at the dinner table by the lawyers and other dancers. Her friend likes their friendship, but doesn’t see it as a reality. The men she hangs with are making music videos and applying for SNL. When they are rejected they get to ask their stepdad for a loan so can they can start drinking at 3 o’clock.
“SNL has gone down hill anyway.” says the roommate.
People have complained about Baumbach being confined to East Coast elite characters. Those kinds of people are here, but we have a view from Frances’s world, which is a little different for Noah.
Not unlike Annie Hall from Philadelphia, Frances has come to New York from a distant land, Sacramento. Baumbach’s vision expands when we follow the charming girl home. Her parents have holiday dinner, they reconnect. They ask how her life is in this other exotic place and she may lie a little bit. In the morning they go to church, where Frances falls in and sings with the rest of the congregation. In the past, Baumbach knows, people have come to New York from places like Frances’s hometown because they heard the call from the Mad Ones (the beats) or the rowdy ones (Patti Smith). “Frances Ha” shows a New York where if the culture seeker shows the slightest freedom of movement, she is giggled at. This entirely has to do with money, as David Byrne has written.
The personality in Frances is strong enough to let the duller characters bounce off her, though she doesn’t see that’s happening. Maybe she’ll get to realize her vision, or maybe she won’t. But the point is that there was once a city that opened itself to her. What makes up bohemia is not just the hip party or that Jay Z’s opened up an art gallery or the mega successful conglomeration of artists and entrepreneurs. What made it was the energy inside the various people who came there, if not to be major artists, then to be free spirits.
It’s noticeable that the characters of Baumbach’s former movies were together in their malaise, while here Frances Ha is alone in her joie de vivre, and having a harder time than the rest. If the scrappy Frances is running the streets to Bowie music in solo enthusiasms (a French nod to Leos Carax), or flying to Paris where no one reads Proust anymore, it’s probably because these places have less room for her kind: the great appreciators. She’s very pretty, but financially an outsider whom no one’s broken the news to yet because it would be awkward.
For all of Gerwig’s sweetness, a starving critic like me almost wishes she had some of Leo DiCaprio’s self-made fire from “The Aviator.” The scene where Howard Hughes is sitting uncomfortably at a table while the Hepburn family is talking about their various readings and communist causes and prejudices. The mother wonders curiously, why all this fuss? Since money doesn’t matter. Hughes interrupts the family conversation, with a plain wisdom now settling over Baumbach: “That’s because you have it. Money doesn’t matter to you because you have it.”
Yet, as Frances simply takes out another credit card, we see money isn’t going to stop her. Whatever it is she has, requires none too much maintenance.