Writer and director Noah Baumbach has delivered several witty comedy-dramas in his near 20-year career, which began in 1995 with the well-received debut Kicking And Screaming. In that film Baumbach’s main characters were a group of college friends who were all stubbornly refusing to move on with their lives, and this period of mid-to-late 20s adjustment – where carefree youth first begins to give way to encroaching middle age and a general desire for stability – is examined again in his latest, Frances Ha.
‘Mumblecore’ may be a fairly recent term, but Baumbach has been operating on its fringes for quite some time now, making a series of lo-fi, witty and dialogue-heavy movies. As an established director he is able to command slightly larger budgets than those more clearly associated with that scene, and his status has attracted the presence of several major Hollywood names, but his influence on the sub-genre is clear: Kicking And Screaming, for example, is the bridge that links Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (or even Joel Schumacher’s bratpackalicious St. Elmo’s Fire) to the likes of Andrew Bujalksi’s Funny Ha Ha.
The similarities between the titles of Bujalski’s debut and Baumbach’s latest surely cannot be coincidental, but during the course of its 86 minutes Frances Ha looks beyond the past decade, directly referencing or bringing to mind several other influential filmmakers with whom the director must feel he shares a certain degree of kinship. It feels at times like an early Jim Jarmusch film, mainly because it shares the same kind of self-aware, introspective and verbose characters. At times it has the same kind of playful energy found in Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim, also includes George Delerue’s music, and recalls the nonchalant daring of the French New Wave more generally. In terms of its setting, rapid-fire naturalistic dialogue and use of black and white (albeit digital) it brings to mind Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Annie Hall (although it’s perhaps a little more ambivalent in its attitude towards New York). There are even hints of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz’s TV late-80s TV series 30something, the current HBO TV series Girls, Hal Hartley’s Amateur and Whit Stillman’s The Last Days Of Disco for good measure. Rest assured, though, this is more than simply a hotchpotch pastiche; Baumbach celebrates these influences but his film does not suffocate under the weight of them, thanks to a strong script, capable actors and his own talent for directing.
Greta Gerwig, who wrote the screenplay with Baumbach, is pitch perfect as Frances Halladay, a 27-year-old dancer trying to make a living in New York while sharing an apartment with best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). The film follows a year (roughly) of Frances’s life, starting with a break up with her boyfriend; it’s one of those reasonably-amicable splits that seems to happen simply because neither partner can be bothered to actually stop it from happening, although their initial argument is caused by the fact that Frances isn’t keen to move in with him. Unfortunately Sophie then decides to move in with her own new boyfriend, and Frances must find somewhere new to live as a result.
Luckily she meets sculptor Lev (Adam Driver) and writer Benji (Michael Zegen), who seemingly have no fixed incomes but no trouble occupying a fairly nice three bedroom apartment in Manhattan (‘The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich’, Sophie drolly points out). (Benji is writing scripts for Saturday Night Live in the film, which used to be one of Baumbach’s jobs.) Frances’s flies home to her family in Sacramento for Christmas, but finds work in New York hard to come by, and struggles to cover her rent. She takes a disappointing credit card-fuelled trip to Paris, works for a summer in Poughkeepsie, and then finally returns to New York with a new talent discovered.
Frances is an engaging and well-observed central character. She is positive, amusing, sharply intelligent, friendly, light-hearted and refreshing: she doesn’t spend the film pining over other men or complaining about being single (she shares a repeated joke with Benji that they are both undateable, when both know that is far from the truth), and though there are a few scatty Bridget Jones’s Diary moments (falling over on the way to pay for a meal on a date, for example) these aren’t too irritating. Frances isn’t defined by dizzy moments: they’re merely presented as the kind of things that can and do happen to anyone from time to time. Perhaps it’s just the kinds of films I’ve been watching, but I haven’t seen a female lead character like Frances for quite some time. She has been likened to Cate Blanchett’s character in Allen’s Blue Jasmine, but I wonder whether the comparison has been made purely due to the paucity of notable female leads in 2013. (You can tell Frances was written by a woman in the same way you can tell Jasmine is, on many levels, an extension of Allen himself … or at least his neurotic on-screen persona.)
The film relies somewhat on the rapid-fire dialogue of young, confident New Yorkers sitting around tables at home, or at parties, but this is largely enjoyable to follow. (I picture myself at the same age, with two male flatmates, barely even managing to grunt at each other during our marathon Playstation sessions, except to point out that the flat was on fire or to comment on the fact we hadn’t eaten for 48 hours.) Gerwig and Baumbach’s screenplay contains more than its fair share of sharp lines, from withering putdowns to flirty friend-on-friend banter, and though it’s a bit too clever-clever at times – 90 minutes is about all I can take in one sitting – the dialogue holds your attention throughout. It is set in the present but this is barely acknowledged and seemingly irrelevant; only the hipster clothing and occasional appearance of a smartphone dates it.
It’s rare to find a film about adults that concerns itself with friendships first and the relationships of couples a distant second. The companionships that exist between Frances and the other characters are believable, and though Sophie, Benji and Lev are present primarily to support her story, they are an interesting trio. The strongest bond is between Frances and Sophie, though their asexual relationship changes as the film progresses; the friendship is a close one initially, full of in-jokes, but it is affected by individual circumstances and decisions, and the two gradually drift apart. Frances seems lost at first without her best friend, and despite the fact she gets on well with her two new male flatmates, the dynamic they share is quite different. She returns to Vassar College – where she met Sophie originally – to work for the summer, as if returning to the source will stop the distance between them from growing, and when she discovers a talent for choreography her debut work is informed by her own recent friendship experiences.
The film’s pacing is excellent. Time seems to pass slower in New York, with Frances restless at home or struggling for work (she isn’t a very good dancer), while conversely her visit home to see the parents (played by Gerwig’s own parents, incidentally) is dealt with in a short and vibrant Christmas montage. Refreshingly, this isn’t fraught with dramatic tension: there are no mini-rows with family members and the brief holiday is shown as a pleasant, comfortable time. Her trip to Paris – an ill-conceived weekend of missed phone calls, jet lag and Eiffel Tower backgrounds – is dealt with just as quickly.
Baumbach and Gerwig – who are currently partners – have made a droll, witty film about female friendship and the point in life where nomadic adolescence is rejected in favour of stable adulthood. It may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but it manages to amuse nonetheless, and Gerwig’s performance – at the heart of the film – is excellent.
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen
Running Time: 86 minutes