Film Review: Frances Ha

Spot-on, exquisitely crafted portrait of a floundering 20-something.

Frances Ha is punctuated with dozens of tiny moments that are explosive in their truthfulness. A turn of phrase can be so uncannily accurate that you need to lean back a bit to take it in. Like the uncomfortable dinner table conversation between Frances (Greta Gerwig), a poor, aspiring modern dancer, and someone who has a pied-à-terre in Paris and wonders if she’s been? Or the beat when Frances and her roommate, illuminated by the light of a movie, give a blasé greeting to the latest female guest of their third roommate (Adam Driver of “Girls”). “Let me show you my room,” he says to her. The door closes, and the other two roommates return their gaze to the screen, the interaction not even worthy of gossip.

Moments like these feel so authentic, so exquisitely captured, that you wonder if the writers, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, have amazing powers of recall or secretly recorded the lives of 20-something urbanites and picked out the most revealing moments. Frances’ attempts to navigate her career and her friendships are at times so real, her missteps make you grimace. Baumbach, who also directed, easily could have taken the other approach, exaggerating many of these truthful moments for a laugh. But he doesn’t, preferring a more natural, quiet humor. One of the characters, perhaps serving as a mouthpiece for Baumbach himself, laments that being called “sincere” is now one of the worst insults one can give to writing. Well, to call Frances Ha sincere is to pay it a compliment.

At the outset, Frances has a boyfriend who comes in second to her relationship with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). After that friend moves to a swankier apartment and starts saving her biggest secrets for her boyfriend, they have a falling out, and Frances is on her own. She cycles through roommate arrangements, different friend groups, and up-and-downs with her career. It’s fascinating to watch Frances inhabit different worlds. There is the ebullient Frances in the company of Sophie, taking on the world. The poor Frances with her two trust-fund-type artist roommates (one of them the aforementioned Lothario). The unimpressive Frances at a dinner party with people older and more sophisticated than her. The regressing Frances, confident at home in Sacramento with her parents. The foolish Frances taking an impetuous vacation to Paris. She isn’t fake in these different scenarios, but they bring out different sides of her personality, even as her efforts to fit in lead to awkward clashes.

The focus on making scenes feel true, even at the expense of having viewers chuckle on the inside instead of laughing out loud, sets the movie apart from its peers. Frances Ha brings to mind Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham’s pre-“Girls” indie. The two movies share the same DNA, the characters could be friends in real life, and watching one on Netflix will lead to a recommendation of the other. That said, neither one is a copy of the other. There is a new creature on the screen, the listless 20-something, and both films attempt to capture the same problems of the age. Frances Ha chooses to do so in black-and-white. The photography feels off-putting at first, especially seeing Frances and Sophie do something as decidedly modern as watching a movie on a laptop in bed. But the aesthetic works, preventing the proceedings from taking on the raw aura of a student film shot on a cheap digital camera. Of course, Frances Ha is much better than an amateur work, but it has a sense of closeness to its subject that recalls hyper-personal first efforts.

Unlike many depictions of the struggles of young adulthood, Frances Ha includes a powerful story of female friendship. Frances’ growth is precipitated by her “breakup” with her best friend, borrowing the plot that sees a spurned woman floundering before finding success after the end of a romantic relationship. For many women, there’s a time when the friendships forged in college lose their intimacy as careers and boyfriends and money and contrasting life directions manifest themselves. It’s a painful loss, and one that Frances Ha takes seriously. At one point after the two drift apart, Sophie admits that her cheerful blog is a scam, and she’s really terribly unhappy. Many movies about the 20-something existence are that blog, with selectively culled glamorous moments, but Frances Ha is not one of them. And for that honesty, it deserves the highest acclaim.