By Ed Wall
Looking back as the credits roll on this touching and open-hearted NYC-set comedy/drama, it’s startling to think that the opening scenes could ever have felt so dubious. Something about the eponymous protagonist’s self-aware manner in those first few minutes really seems designed to rub the viewer up the wrong way. At this point, the near future looks bleak – an uphill slog through a bandwagon-jumping Brooklynite yarn. Will this be utterly, unbearably pretentious? Is Frances the epitome of annoying? You’re prepared to hate it. And then it surprises you.
Given director Noah Baumbach’s history, his documented perfectionism and meticulous use of openings to misdirect the viewer’s expectations in his prior films, you’d imagine this has been an intentionally cheeky manipulation. As important as first impressions usually are, Frances excels at not making – and then transcending not making – a good one. You fall for her, and for the film, rather despite yourself.
Although the film is set in the apparent hub of hipster culture right now, Gerwig’s Frances doesn’t easily fit any conceivable definition of cool. A reactive rather than proactive person, she’s a little lost, but not particularly concerned about it. She’s lazy, and spends time (as do a lot of us) talking about what she should be doing. Most of her flaws constitute what make her loveable: she’s a bit of a goofball, often quite annoying (but in a sweet way, unlike the character of Poppy in Mike Leigh’s irritating Happy-Go-Lucky, for example), has no self-censorship and no awareness of when she’s crossing the line with other people. As a character she feels intensely real, and Gerwig (co-writer of the film) plays her beautifully, with just the right amount of confusion and vulnerability hidden under the apparent spacey lack of awareness.
Fran’s friendship with Sophie (an impressive Mickey Sumner) constitutes Frances Ha‘s central relationship. As Frances refuses to meet her impending thirties head-on, the pair start to drift apart – a plot thread which accounts for much of the film’s emotional impact and dramatic tension. It’s also a blessed relief to see a contemporary comedy focused almost exclusively on a single female lead that isn’t ultimately concerned with the male love interest; the brilliantly casual way in which Frances casts off her first boyfriend is a good indication of the film’s lack of interest in her sex life.
In a number of ways, Frances and the film mirror each other. Frances is often casual to the point of being non-present, and while Frances Ha is ostensibly a comedy, its humour is often so low-key as to seem almost unintentional. This is a definite strength, in that it never seems to be actively looking for laughs. Baumbach’s choice to shoot in black and white doesn’t feel like an act of pretension so much as a Frances-like avoidance of having to choose colour schemes (although the film is visually rich, in a nicely understated way). It’s also brilliantly edited. Frances’ daily activities, often used as bridges between scenes, are briskly summated in montage-style vignettes which cut in and out of random exchanges and personal moments. In keeping with the film’s winning combination of frothiness and mild spikiness, these sequences at once lightly mock and highlight the bizarreness of peoples’ routines and behaviours. By making these observations awkward by robbing them of their immediate context, the film portrays life as a series of random, beautiful but ultimately meaningless instances. Yet, of course, the meaninglessness is what makes it all interesting.
I must admit I found the film emotionally affecting in a way I rarely find. Frances’ willingness, in the end, to open herself up to ridicule perhaps won my sympathies. If Lena Dunham’s fantastic Tiny Furniture (2011) was a film that encapsulated the knowingness of being in your early twenties, Frances Ha is definitely older, more world-weary, but conversely also more openly optimistic. It’s something like a pep talk to dreamers. The possibility of failure manifests throughout the film, daunting, concrete. And yet Frances’ steadfast refusal to allow that reality to exist (despite it so obviously existing) means the chance of a lucky break never seems beyond her. We create our own luck, it says, through an insane, bloody-minded refusal to believe there is no such thing as failure.
Frances Ha is in cinemas from Friday courtesy of Metrodome Pictures. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.