Directed by Noah Baumbach
If Woody Allen were to write and direct Napoleon Dynamite, the end result very well might turn out to be something like Frances Ha.
Amid all the summer blockbusters boasting six-figure budgets, three-dimensional images, and sometimes one-dimensional stories comes this little gem of a movie. It was shot in black and white (yes!) and it features some of the funniest, most quotable dialogue to come down the pike in quite some time.
The black and white imagery of Manhattan evokes... well... Woody Allen’s Manhattan. And there are those title cards that announce the increasingly more distressed location where Frances can be found during the scenes to follow. There’s also the music; swap out Gershwin for Delerue and Bowie. All pinched from Allen’s modus operandi.
And, like Woody Allen, particularly the younger Woody Allen, Frances is neurotic. She’s 27 and, while she has a boyfriend, she’d prefer to renew her lease with her BFF rather than accept her beau’s invitation to move in and cohabitate. That incredibly awkward, circular conversation between Frances and her boyfriend is at the very beginning of Frances Ha and it serves as the perfect introduction to the freshest, quirkiest female character to not-so-agilely grace the screen in quite some time.
You see, Frances dreams of being a dancer and while her dancing skills sometimes lack polish, she’s most certainly lacking in the social graces. Unlike Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover trilogy, though, Frances is totally endearing. She’s book smart – a Vassar grad – but she’s world stupid.
Frances Ha tells of the unraveling life of dear, sweet, and utterly poor Frances as she struggles to keep her life moving forward; she’s focused on maintaining her apprenticeship at a dance studio, breaks up with her boyfriend, navigates the challenges surrounding a BFF who finds a man who whisks her away to Japan, and basically suffers through numerous living and social situations.
Generally speaking, life doesn’t work all that smoothly for Frances. Even when she endeavors to celebrate the receipt of her tax return by treating a guy friend to dinner, her card is declined. That leads to a multi-block Manhattan adventure in pursuit of an ATM, which in turn yields a couple laugh-out-loud moments, including a pratfall on the cluttered sidewalks of New York City.
Getting cash can be a bruising experience for Frances; tie that in with Frances’ own observation that she can’t account for all of her bruises and she becomes the epitome of the quirky, klutzy girl that Calvin was warned about in Ruby Sparks.
She. Is. Undatable.
“Undatable” becomes Frances’ mantra. She’s not particularly concerned about her social status. She’s even oblivious when a male roommate, with whom she gets along very well, makes romantic overtures.
Instead, Frances immerses herself in slogging through her own way in the world. That entails taking a resident advisor summer job back in the Vassar dorms and a whirlwind weekend trip to Paris egged on after a dinner party with the much more well to do.
So who plays this Frances? Greta Gerwig. She’s appeared in plenty of movies in her young career, including the Arthur remake with Russell Brand, No Strings Attached, and Lola Versus. Hopefully the meandering listlessness of Frances’ life will yield a higher profile in Hollywood for Gerwig, if she so desires. Bringing to life a character like Frances so richly and wholly – as both actress and co-screenwriter – is a wonderment.
Credit also goes to her collaborator, director and co-writer Noah Baumbach. Previously, they teamed on the Ben Stiller comedy Greenberg. Quirky is Baumbach’s wheelhouse. He co-wrote with Wes Anderson The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (starring Bill Murray) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson’s contribution to animated fare); The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding are a couple of Baumbach’s solo efforts.
At its core, Frances Ha is all about those crazy, ambitious dreams of youth, many of which have to be scotched. Like the one where Frances and her BFF, Sophie (Micky Sumner, Girl Most Likely – and Sting’s daughter), are lavished with one honorary degree after another.
But Frances is a fighter; she lives by inertia. She’s not going to simply allow the sidewalks of New York to trip her up and call it game over. Some people take alternate routes through life and their road is longer and harder, but taking a cue from Frank Sinatra and doing it her way very well might prove to be much more satisfying in the long run.
As for the title, Frances Ha, even it is the source of a joke. But that one’s saved for the very end.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.