Frances Ha is a good movie, but not great one, despite all the critical hoopla surrounding it. There’s a certain quirky hipster charm at work, and a few nice supporting performances, but the movie centers on a main character that spends the entire running time being so lost and pathetic, that it’s of little concern if she finds her footing by the end.
I’ll admit Frances Ha had me hooked for at least its first half, due in large part to the talent of director Noah Baumbach’s wife and co-writer, Greta Gerwig, who plays Frances, and Mickey Sumner, as Frances’ long-suffering best friend, Sophie. Frances and Sophie live in a small apartment in Brooklyn, depending on one another for companionship in the early years of post-college life. Frances is an aimless mess, and Sophie only marginally less so. With no money and little to do, they spend their evenings huddled together in bed like tween girls at a sleepover, telling each other fairy tales about their lives. One day, Sophie, tired of the daily cynicism of her life, decides to move out and up to another apartment and other friends, leaving Frances alone and unequipped to run her own life. To make matters worse, Sophie confesses that she’s falling in love with her unseen boyfriend, Patch, whom Frances really doesn’t like.
A series of encounters follows, as Frances attempts to navigate life without the help of her beloved best friend who practically disappears from sight. She takes the couch in the apartment of two boys (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen), one of whom is obviously in love with her, and one whose primary goal in life is to examine the nether regions of as many women as possible. Frances promises she’ll be able to pay the rent and move into an actual bedroom when she goes full time with the dance company teaches at (even though she’s not a very good dancer), but the Fates have other plans for her.
We get a few nice vignettes of Frances trying to figure it all out: in Sacramento for Christmas with her parents, in Paris for a weekend, and in Poughkeepsie, where she works the summer at her old college. It’s upstate that Sophie turns up unexpectedly, her affluent but miserable husband Patch (Patrick Heusinger) in tow, and reconnects with Frances. The scenes here between Frances and Sophie are actually pretty touching, as the two discover the ancient allure and disappointment of greener grasses, and I was surprised at the strong work by Sumner, who has remained unknown to me until now.
My central problem with the movie is Frances, herself, who spends ninety percent of the movie moping and sulking because she perceives that the best friend with whom she’s clearly obsessed has forsaken her for a better life. Yes, Frances has a whimsical attitude about her financial and living situation, and Gerwig does all she can to sustain it. But when it comes to Sophie, Frances is a real downer. I don’t want to spoil too much, but Baumbach tries for a little redemption that arrives too fast and too late in the movie to make much difference.
Should you see Frances Ha? Sure, although I wouldn’t put too much effort into actively seeking it out. Baumbach gets a nice, authentic feel out of New York City, and a little wave of mid-century French cinema via the crisp black-and-white photography. His dialogue rings true and deep, particularly in the moments between Frances and Sophie, creating a sense of urgency and spontaneity in their words. And, aside from Sumner, Gerwig is a gifted actress. I saw her the first time in the Duplass brothers’ 2008 horror/comedy, Baghead, and predicted great things for her. She’s since turned in a series of terrific performances in movies like House of the Devil, Greenberg, and I suspect her star will only rise from here.