Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Charlotte d'Amboise, Patrick Heusinger
MPAA Rating: (for sexual references and language)
Running Time: 1:26
Release Date: 5/17/13 (limited); 5/24/13 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 23, 2013
We must talk about the title first. The "Ha" is a joke, but not in the way of suggesting a laugh. It's the first two letters of the title character's last name, and the shortening of it is the film's final visual gag in which she has written her entire name out on a slip of paper but cannot find a way to make it fit in the space where the paper should go. Instead, she cuts it, and hence, the film is called Frances Ha.
It might not sound important, and the necessary vagueness in discussing the film's final scene does not help, either. The joke, basically, is that we have spent the entire film watching a woman in her late 20s aimlessly wander from place to place in an attempt to find a residence that will accommodate her ever-worsening financial situation. She's incomplete, and with that sight gag, co-writer/director Noah Baumbach insists she's still incomplete at the end of the film.
The statement is neither cynical about nor critical of the character, although the film easily could have been a scathing indictment of her. In fact, there's something hopeful in the joke's pragmatism. Even with one complication seemingly resolved, there are still many questions left unanswered, and in those dangling threads of this woman's life, there are so many opportunities yet to be had—so many accomplishments to be achieved. That's the beauty of growing up and becoming an adult—even if it takes someone almost 30 years to figure out that's how it works. In a roundabout way that mirrors its central character, the film, a pointed and very funny character study, fully embraces that concept.
Speaking of beauty, on a purely aesthetic level, this is a beautiful film, too, that suggests a sense of mystery and wonder about the character's gradual maturation and of its locales, primarily New York City. Baumbach's decision to film in black and white lends a romanticized air to this relatively simple tale, and Sam Levy's sometimes exquisite digital cinematography makes even the most mundane locations look like something out of a high-end coffee table book.
Much of the film revolves around the mundane. The story follows Frances (Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the screenplay), an aspiring dancer who teaches ballet classes to children at a local dance studio and dreams of becoming part of the studio's company. She's barely scraping by financially, relying on the fact that she has a roommate, her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), to be able to even afford the monthly rent. They have been friends for years—inseparable, really. They play fight in public, curl up in bed to watch movies on a laptop (When Frances is ready to go to her own bed, Sophie insists she spend the night in hers), and share cigarettes by the open window.
Frances' commitment to her friend is deeper than any other relationships she has. When her boyfriend Dan (Michael Esper) asks her to move in with him, her first thought is that she would be letting down Sophie when it comes time to renew their lease. Needless to say, Dan takes this poorly, and the two go through an awkward dance of a breakup—she agreeing with his statement that the relationship "isn't working" until she realizes that he's serious and then attempting to walk back her decision not to move in with him before starting right back at the beginning again.
This is the only time we see Frances in a romantic relationship. She briefly considers trying to date Sophie's friend Lev (Adam Driver) and has a relationship with his roommate Benji (Michael Zegen) that both he and Frances agree is like a marriage without the sex, but they are just another temporary stop in her search for living accommodations. See, Sophie has decided to move in with her boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger), which puts Frances into a financial and emotional tailspin. It's only appropriate that she doesn't bother finding a boyfriend; she has far too much baggage at this point in her life. Anyway, she also agrees with Benji's jest that she's "undateable" because of her numerous quirks.
Of all of those idiosyncrasies (most of them harmless, like making esoteric references), the screenplay is primarily interested in Frances' strange but sympathetic tendency to lie. She's brutally honest on the majority of topics (She's eager to point out to Sophie that she doesn't like Patch), but when it comes to talking about herself, Frances is a pathological liar.
They're innocent lies; there's no sinister motive behind them. She's simply trying to give the impression to others that she is more important and successful than she actually is. To people who don't know her that well, she's a dancer; she makes no mention of the fact that she's never used as an understudy and has to convince the director of the dance company (Charlotte d'Amboise) to consider making room for her as a background dancer in the annual holiday show.
When she's at dinner with a group of strangers, the conversation turns to world travel, including the fact that one couple has a house in Paris. When they make a throwaway offer that Frances could use it if she's ever there, she impulsively says that she's planning on going for the weekend. It will only put her a couple thousand dollars—irrevocably, really—in debt, she figures (The punch line when she arrives there is completely in character). It keeps getting worse for Frances, and the few times an opportunity to turn things around presents itself, her misplaced pride ensures that she only digs deeper into insecurity and failure.On paper, Frances may not sound like a sympathetic character—a woman who creates her own terrible circumstances and whose ego perpetuates them to the point that, in one scene, we think she might be fending for herself in the woods (It turns out the situation is not so desperate—only embarrassing, as she moves back into a dorm room at her alma mater). Two elements in Frances Ha are essential to making sure she's not only sympathetic but also quite likeable. The first is Gerwig's performance, which makes Frances odd without ever being loopy and idealistic without seeming completely irresponsible—only very much so. The other is Baumbach's consistent tone of amused optimism. If Frances has a chance, there's hope for us all.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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