Frances Ha is an ode to the particular qualities of actress Greta Gerwig, and also something of a generational snapshot. If aimlessness is a hallmark of the post-collegiate class these days – both because of the economic downturn and their own culturally endorsed fecklessness – Gerwig’s Frances is the living embodiment of that type. An aspiring dancer half-heartedly struggling to make ends meet in New York City, she drifts through life like a seed on the wind, occasionally settling on a place that would seem to be fertile, but then blowing along again before getting a chance to bear fruit.
Gerwig has played this sort of character before. I first became aware of her in 2006’s Baghead, and pretty much since then she’s offered variations on this dazed-and-confused woman-child. She was especially good this way in 2010’s Greenberg, which paired her dim but sweet personal assistant with Ben Stiller’s angry narcissist. Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding), directed Gerwig there, and he’s behind the camera again here, working from a script they wrote together. The result is a slight delight, a character study that caters to the Gerwig persona while also sanding off the edges of Baumbach’s usual bitterness.
Part of the reason she’s “not a real person yet” is because contemporary culture doesn’t value what she has to offer.
Perhaps it’s best to let Frances describe herself. “I’m not a real person yet,” she tells a date when she tries to pay for dinner but is told she can’t use her debit card. Later, she says that her best friend makes fun of her “because I can’t account for my bruises.” Frances also twirls down New York’s streets (endearingly, she’s not really that good of a dancer) and hangs from the subway platform to pee. All of this could be forced or exasperating. But aside from one dinner-party scene in which she goes past characterization to quirkiness, Gerwig mostly inhabits the childlike carelessness of Frances so fully that your instinct is not to loathe her, but protect her.
This is especially true once Frances’ already precarious life is thrown into disarray. Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her roommate and closest friend, announces that she’s moving out, sending Frances into a spiral of odd living arrangements. After briefly crashing with two equally unmoored guys (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen), she bounces from a Christmas trip home to an impulsive weekend in Paris to an acrimonious temporary stay with a fellow dancer. Eventually, while working at her alma mater on a summer job she’s far too old for, Frances runs into Sophie again. One of the movie’s lovelier moments – accentuated, as is everything else, by Sam Levy’s black-and-white cinematography – is a wordless scene of reconciliation between them. Among other things, Frances Ha is a gentle ode to the virtues of platonic love.
There is something easy about that reconciliation, however, and indeed about the final act of the film altogether (slight spoilers ahead). Without much explanation, Frances’ dance career takes another, more promising, direction, and her various relationships achieve a sense of peace. It’s nice to see, even if it feels a bit false. The truth is, the world doesn’t have room for someone like Frances; part of the reason she’s “not a real person yet” is because contemporary culture doesn’t value what she has to offer. Her guilelessness is more often trampled than rewarded. If Frances Ha begins as a character study, it ends something like a fairy tale.