Film review: ‘Frances Ha’ is a low budget delight

Greta Gerwig and Mickey Summer play besties split apart in "Frances Ha." Credit: Pine District LLC
Greta Gerwig and Mickey Summer play besties split apart in “Frances Ha.”
Credit: Pine District LLC

‘Frances Ha’
Director Noah Baumbach
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Summer
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Bridesmaids” did not invent the type of film where an immature woman loses her bestie to adulthood. But if that film was shot on a very small budget, filmed in black-and-white, bore influences from the French New Wave — and did not include any set pieces in which someone poops in a busy street — it might nearly resemble Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha.” “Bridesmaids” also had a foundation in deep trauma, about the pain of being the last among your peers to settle down. “Frances Ha” goes deeper with this idea, and even features better jokes.

Greta Gerwig plays Frances, a twentysomething in an unprofitable nonprofession (dancing), living in a bubble of comfortable security with roommate Sophie (Mickey Summer, Sting’s wry daughter). A montage right out of “Jules and Jim” kicks off the film, with the two bounding about New York, without a care in the world. In “Jules and Jim,” the blissful opening was a harbinger of certain doom. It is here, too, but on a much more manageable scale: Sophie simply and suddenly finds a man. This turn of events hits Frances and the viewer like a brick: abruptly, the good days are gone.

With no one to lean on as a crutch, questionable living situations, ill-advised Paris trips (funded “with that credit card I got in the mail”) and other, sometimes cruel humiliations follow. What makes this tolerable, and even enjoyable, is Gerwig and Baumbach. This is their second joint effort, after “Greenberg,” and it’s a melange of “indie” film styles: its grainy, deep-contrast black-and-white film could be Francois Truffaut, while Gerwig herself summons up the so-called mumblecore movement that made her an up-and-comer.

The personality, though, is equal parts its star and director. Gerwig has a loopy, vaguely medicated charm where she blurts out embarrassing admissions, as though she wasn’t even trying to stop them. Baumbach is a wit with a gift for sharp, self-aware one-liners. The dialogue leans more towards Gerwig, but the film has the tight shape of its director’s films (“Kicking and Screaming,” “The Squid and the Whale”). Like its hero, it never succumbs to self-pity. Even when Frances hits a strange and inspired kind of rock bottom, she remains cautiously almost-optimistic, puttering along as though used to living terribly.

As a director, Baumbach’s mood is even brighter. The pace is fast, made faster by giant ellipses in which major events are simply elided: suddenly Frances is moving out of a spacious Manhattan apartment; suddenly she’s in California. The music is unfailingly peppy. He even borrows, almost shamelessly, a scene from “Holy Motors” director Leos Carax’s 1986 film “Mauvais Sang,” where Denis Lavant sprinted as fast as he could down an empty city street at night to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” Frances does the same thing, only the street is crowded, the daylight beaming, her mood even brighter. “Frances Ha” should be more depressing than it is. Luckily it’s usually the opposite.


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