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Feb 2, 2014

Review: FRANCES HA (2013)

           Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Charlotte d'Amboise, Michael Esper, Grace Gummer, Patrick Heusinger, Josh Hamilton, Maya Kazan, Justine Lupe, Britta Phillips, Juliet Rylance and Dean Wareham

                   Noah Baumbach

                 The films of Noah Baumbach generally feature difficult and miserable characters with depressing and exhausting situations and some moments of odd comedy. When Frances Ha was announced as part of the 2012 Telluride Film Festival lineup, I was first surprised that I didn't know about a new Baumbach feature but more than that, the reception it got clearly stated that this was a very different film from the filmmaker. This project was kept a secret and nobody knew about it until the very last minute. I anxiously waited, the trailer arrived and I couldn't stop watching that over and over. When I finally got the chance to watch Frances Ha, I was overwhelmed by how great it turned out. Written by both Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, who stars in the film as titular character as well, Frances Ha is a moving, funny and beautiful account of a girl in her late 20's. One thing to know is that both Baumbach and Gerwig are in a relationship in reality so it's not that hard to see how much of an impact that had on Baumbach's sensibilities in the film. This indie comedy/drama is in black and white while New York City is portrayed in one of the most glorious ways. The obvious comparison that one can do is to Woody Allen's "Manhattan" or the work of French New Wave filmmakers, specially Francois Truffaut. Also the more annoying comparison could be Lena Dunham's "Girls" as much as I love the show itself. Annoying because the comparison itself has less to do with New York or female characters but with how they are portrayed. Frances Ha never reminded me of that show, nothing about this film even remotely points out to the HBO hit. Baumbach himself is a fan of Woody Allen so the look of this feature was intended to be kind of a nod to his above mentioned film. On the other hand, the soundtrack of this film has references to the music of French New Wave features. Yet with all that, Frances Ha is anything but ordinary. It is its own thing. A different kind of beast and remarkable filmmaking within the more obvious realms.

                 Frances Hallady (Gerwig) is 27 years old and she lives with her best friend Sophie (Sumner). Frances is a dancer but she is not. She teaches dance to younger kids but she doesn't. She works yet she doesn't. She wants to be in a relationship yet she doesn't. In short, her life is a big mess and there doesn't seem to be any way out of it. Mind you that these problems that Frances has aren't portrayed in the film as such. One of the things I loved about Frances Ha was how beautifully the life of this character was presented. Baumbach cares for her, it is a compassionate portrayal. She is now at the crossroads, she needs to find herself and what she wants to do with her life. Mostly people in that post-graduation phase have jobs and an assured life. But Frances only has her lovely friend Sophie. But then suddenly, Sophie decides to move out of the apartment and later as the film progresses, she gets engaged. Here I want to point out another thing that really hit me in this film. How effortlessly and accurately the female friendship is portrayed. I hardly remember the last time I watched a film that literally showed two girls so deeply connected and such an integral part of each other's life that one might mistake their relationship as not platonic. The film starts off as both these characters do what they normally do together. The promises, their dreams, hanging out with each other, private jokes etc. On the other hand, Frances breaks up with her boyfriend. There is a job she is working towards but things don't look well. She later doesn't even have a place to live. Frances is impulsive and reckless, she never takes anything seriously because of her nature not that she doesn't wants to. She continuously works towards her goal yet with every passing day, the possibility of her dreams to ever come true become less obvious. She desperately tries to hold on to things but she can't. Yet she never stops trying.

                 Another thing to note in Frances Ha is that the film isn't about anything yet it ends up covering so much. That quality may remind you of the films of Jim Jarmusch. It has an upbeat and delightful editing work that presents glimpses into the life of Frances. There isn't any literal story that is followed, a plot, a set goal. It seems like a gaze, a rarefied glimpse that Baumbach is offering us. For Frances, life is when you are supposed to do something at a given moment. She lives fully in that. Baumbach captures that essence of Frances' giddy wonders about life with every step she takes whether good or bad. There is never an overload of breeziness or cuteness found in the film. It evokes enough feelings of adoration while presenting all the flaws of the lead character without ever being apologetic about it. As I said, the film is more of a construction of glimpses into the life not a coming of age or a finding your way type of story. She is caught up in a mess that somewhere, each of us have to endure. She is in a world where you need to have ambitions and jobs and good place to live. A slacker, hipster... please! They aren't considered normal. Frances falls somewhere in the middle of all that. The everyday things and concerns, the in-the-moment sort of dynamic is what sets Frances Ha apart. Frances never literally grows up in the duration of the film. She remains the person she has always been but learns and recognizes the things that she needs to do in order to advance. There are so many wonderful moments in this film that had me in awe of them. I was delighted, smiled in places or even got sad. There is one sequence that is just as spontaneous as the girl herself. Of course, the "Modern Love" scene. That very song selection and sequence is inspired by a French film "Mauvais Sang" where the actor Denis Lavant runs through the streets just like Gerwig does here.

                 You now Frances as the kind of a girl who always finds ways to try to be happy when her life isn't truly going for that sort of thing. She is someone who can talk awkward yet make sense in her own way. She is somebody who can go on a trip to the romantic city of Paris on credit card, knowing and expecting it to be as miserable and limited as she would have thought. That David Bowie song and the constant running and spinning and leaping through the streets and roads of New York is one of the most infectious moments of any film released last year. A few memorable seconds that are full of charm and beauty, the child-like innocence and love for simple lively moments. I was reminded of a particular scene in "Jules & Jim" during that part as well. Here however, Frances is with herself only. She is in New York and on her way to home with her iPod on. So she starts running because she feels like doing it. The music is quite creatively used to be honest. Like a particular melody for each moment. The cinematography is brilliant and the black and white somehow magnifies the beauty of the city and the story itself. It never feels like a gimmick. The star of Frances Ha however is Greta Gerwig. Highly endearing, affective and colorful performance. She perfectly signifies and portrays all the shades of her character. She acts quirky, serious, lost, disappointed, lonely and fun. There is an effortless energy and charm to her portrayal. Whether it's the comic situations, the physical mannerism or dialogue delivery, she nails it. Gerwig has the verbal clarity and a knack for clearly distinguishing the thin line her character possesses of graceful persona and a lost misguided soul. Her character is pretty real and possesses the goodness of a person with flaws and adoration. Frances is determined to be independent but there is always something she needs. She wants to be an adult or at least she aspires to be yet there is always a child hiding behind all that she does. There is a particular moment that with all its obvious humor felt so real and painfully stinging. Talking about the scene where she has a dinner with actual adults. That entire moment and the post-dinner conversation. The words really feel bittersweet and Gerwig somewhere loses herself in that moment. Probably on the more emotional level, that is my favorite scene.

                 The joined forces of Gerwig and Baumbach ends up writing a brilliant screenplay. One of the more original, refreshing and clearly written films. The lines are so true and snappy as well as they perfectly convey where the characters are coming from. Baumbach himself directed his best film yet. He paints a wonderful montage for the character and all the things that makes her who she really is. There are pretty nice performances from supporting cast like Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen etc. I liked the nice little arc of Sophie herself, Sumner's performance is quite worthy. There is nothing in the world that made me as happy as I was with that ending. Like Frances herself, you feel like breathing freely. The final scene is a nice little moment. Striking in more than one way, Frances Ha is a beautiful, entertaining, touching and delightful nod to the thing we call 'life'. While Frances Hallady encapsulating all that comes with it. Frances Ha has moments of awkwardness, of being 'undatable', moments full of joy and being with people who gets you. It is about a clumsy little (big) girl and life itself. One of the best films of 2013, a truly original piece of American indie filmmaking.

Grade: A