It’s spring in New York, that magical time of year when the city actually looks and feels clean and bright, everything blooming, the air woozy with (pleasant) fragrance. Hardly the time to spend unnecessary hours indoors, but the film Frances Ha, a kind of distillation of the fleeting warmth and hope of May, would be a worthy exception. A lot of that has to do with co-writer and star Greta Gerwig, in her most subtle and sympathetic role yet. She plays Frances, a 27-year-old dancer still trying to barnacle herself to the indifferent edifice of New York. This film has everything: breakups, women crying in bathrooms, cringe-worthy embarrassments, Adam Driver. But if you’re thinking Girls, don’t. Director Noah Baumbach’s version of young Brooklyn is witty and elegant, more Woody Allen soufflé than Dunham’s caustic Cool Whip. From his debut feature Kicking and Screaming through The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, Baumbach has been a perceptive observer about relationships, especially their bitter honesty. But there’s a surprising, casual buoyancy to Frances Ha that feels both new and completely organic. This is nicely paralleled in the style of the film, from the French New Wave score, to DP Sam Levy’s lovely black-and-white cinematography (teased out of simple Canon 5D digital cameras). In a similar way, Baumbach and Gerwig have found the classic rhythm in Frances’ stumbling reincarnation in New York.
The film opens with a montage that introduces us to Frances and her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting and Trudie Styler). As Frances likes to put it, they are “the same person but with different hair,” a capsule that represents a larger truth about Frances. In the face of New York’s relentless, ruthless hierarchy, Frances remains sweetly naïve about the differences between people, especially the gradations of class among white, educated Brooklynites. To anyone else, it’s obvious that Frances and Sophie have very little in common, except that they are both in the limbo between college and major life milestones (millstones?), the vast canyons of choice and experience known as your twenties.
Like any New Yorker, the film measures time by addresses and is organized into chapters according to where Frances is living. When we meet Sophie and Frances, they are still roommates in Brooklyn, and Frances turns down her boyfriend’s offer to live together (and consequently the boyfriend himself) to stay with Sophie. It’s only a few days later when Sophie breezily tells Frances she’s moving to a nicer apartment in Tribeca. For Sophie, with her publishing job and hedge fund boyfriend “Patch,” change is easily absorbable, and she’s conveniently blasé about how this puts Frances out on the street. Frances ends up moving into a Chinatown apartment with two family money art school kids, playboy Lev (Adam Driver), and writer Benji (Michael Zegen). Although I understand the nostalgic bond that ties Frances to Sophie (and despite Sumner’s good performance), I found Sophie kind of a drip, listless and self-absorbed. Baumbach gets more mileage out of Lev and Benji, nailing the type — the motorcycles, the fedoras, the trying so hard and yet not trying at all. The film really hits its stride when Frances moves in with them, and it seems like a new beginning that has her dancing in the streets; there’s literally a tracking shot of Frances running and spinning through downtown intersections to Bowie’s “Modern Love” (a tribute to Denis Lavant’s similar scene from Leos Carax’s 1986 noir Mauvais Sang that apparently took three days to shoot). It’s one of the film’s loveliest scenes, even if it’s when Frances downward spiral starts picking up speed.
For all its charm, Frances Ha has edges and is particularly sharp about class. Unlike her friends, Frances lives paycheck to paycheck, not Paris to Tokyo. Sure, she makes bad decisions — like blowing her precious tax rebate on dinner for Lev and buying an impromptu plane ticket while living out of a storage unit — but these decisions seemed to be spurred by shame and frustration that she can’t keep up with the spontaneous, well-traveled, creative New Yorkers around her. And it’s true, she can’t. They play at being low-rent, but their spontaneity and creativity are nicely cushioned by plush bank accounts, while hers send her packing, first home to her parents in Sacramento and then finally to the indignity of an on-campus job at the upstate college she graduated from years ago. But this apex of humiliation seems to cement Frances’ resolve. When she returns to New York, she does so gingerly, mending fences and grateful for the friendship that’s offered in return.
It’s remarkable, and I’m very thankful, that Baumbach and Gerwig didn’t tack on a romance at the end of Frances Ha. From beginning to end, the film is perceptive in the way it imagines Frances’ life as her romance not with a lover, but with New York, her work, and herself. In contrast, Girls ended last season with Hannah being rescued — literally picked up and carried — by a man. Baumbach doesn’t insult Frances by sending some hipster on a Ducati to her door. He gives her a room of her own.