Frances Ha is the kind of movie with characters you just want to spend more time with. Noah Baumbach’s film tells the story of a girl in her mid-20s searching for answers in life and doing so in the most awkward ways possible. There’s an unusual love story in there, between two best friends trying to have their own lives. At its heart – and this is a movie with a big heart – Frances Ha is a joyous dramedy that proves inspiring filmmakers are still able to make their mark.
Greta Gerwig, who Baumbach made a star in 2010’s Greenberg, plays the Frances in the title, who lives in New York with her best friend from college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Their life together is perfect, at least until Sophie decides to move out. That leaves Frances, who only earns money by teaching at a dance school, out on her own. She has trouble finding a place to live and she isn’t making enough money. At one point, an opportunity with a dance company falls through and Frances winds up going back to her college for a summer job. Life just doesn’t seem to be going the way she hoped.
In many ways, Frances Ha feels like it was built to appeal just to the hipster crowd, the people eating up Lena Dunham’s Girls every week and anyone who just graduated from college. But Baumbach and Gerwig – who must be considered more than just the star, since she co-wrote the script – bring in older influences and expand the scope beyond just New York. Going into this movie, one can’t help but expect to be stuck in New York and yet Baumbach decides that Frances can’t be someone shaped exclusively by the Big Apple. She goes back to Sacramento to visit her parents (played by Gerwig’s real parents), takes a job at her college in Poughkeepsie and takes a whirlwind trip to Paris on a whim. (Unfortunately, she sleeps through most of the first day.) Even if Frances Ha owes a lot to Woody Allen’s best films with its brand of witty humor, it isn’t looking to get pigeonholed in the “New York Movie” mold.
Of course, the locales aren’t the only aspects that make Frances Ha more unique than expected. Baumbach has created a French New Wave movie in 2013, decades after that flash of early 1960s creativity in France ended. He turned the movie from color to black and white and even used music by Georges Delerue and other French New Wave composers. Gerwig even gets to visit some of the locales used in those films in Paris. Then there’s the group of unique characters who live against the norms of society and just trying to fit in. The reality is though, they just have to understand that they do fit in their own worlds, which is key to Frances’ own character arc.
Like many of the French New Wave films it takes notes from, Frances Ha is a loose, episodic story that is still able to feature defining character development. While the people in Frances’ life do not have to change, Frances herself has to, otherwise there’s no point to the movie. It’s really about Frances’ discovery that she might not fit into overall society, but she fits perfectly into her own circle of friends and family. She needs to come to terms with the fact that she can’t hold a dinner conversation with those outside her circle of friends without seeming awkward. She can’t have a play fight with anyone else but Sophie. She’s still “undateable” if you don’t know her.
On Home Video: Frances Ha was released theatrically in 2013 by IFC, which has a deal with the Criterion Collection. The label has an affinity for Baumbach and picked Frances Ha reather quickly, releasing it on Blu-ray in November. Since this is a fairly new movie, Criterion really coulnd’t get a critical look at the film, so they stuck with informative interviews with Gerwig and Baumbach. Gerwig’s interview with Sarah Polley is particularly eye-opening, as the writer/star goes over her influences. The film is also streaming on Netflix.
It’s easy to draw parallels between Francse Ha and Girls, but Gerwig and Baumbach had a much different voice than Lena Dunham. Frances Ha is an 80-minute movie of far more interested in its main character’s journey of discovery and understanding of her life, while Girls is a show that often seems to go out of its way to make characters miserable. This is a film about learning to love what you have and the journey it takes to realize it and is one of the best films from 2013.