Who knows what other showbiz skeletons are hiding in the closets of the superior ensemble cast? And who cares? Writing with Gerwig, Baumbach has created a fey, sneakily charming generational touchstone on a par with “Annie Hall” and his own Gen Y col-grad comedy “Kicking and Screaming.” And he has created a spectacular showcase for Gerwig, a creaturely, almost feral sprite whose instincts and born-ready camera presence have long been staples of hand-made indie productions, but have yet to find their rightful purchase in mainstream Hollywood (Gerwig’s participation in the benighted re-make of “Arthur” notwithstanding).
As “Frances Ha” opens, 27-year-old Frances (Gerwig) is living in Brooklyn, sharing an apartment with her best friend, Sophie (Sumner, in a bespectacled, brainily appealing breakout turn), their relationship telegraphed in an early montage showing the two women fake-fighting, knitting, talking, playing backgammon and doing laundry. (Frances will later say of Sophie, “We’re the same person, different hair.”) Sophie, an aspiring writer and editor, works at Random House; Frances teaches dance and works as an understudy with a contemporary company in which she’s clearly outgunned by more lissome talents — among them a stone-faced prima donna played with flawless lack of affect by Gummer.
Frances and Sophie make easygoing fun of Sophie’s boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), with his pre-distressed baseball caps and “Yo, bro” vernacular. But when things look more serious with him — and when Sophie unceremoniously informs Frances that she’s moving to Manhattan to a better apartment — Frances’s world begins to wobble, her once-charming aimlessness taking on the contours of a more pathetic and alarming lack of direction.
Shot in lo-fi black and white and set at a brisk and unforced pace, “Frances Ha” follows Frances along an archipelago of places where she crashes to figure things out, including an apartment she shares with two amiable hipsters (played by Adam Driver and Michael Zegen), her hometown of Sacramento and a weekend in Paris that includes the best representation of jet lag since “Lost in Translation.”
“Frances Ha” bears obvious appeal for not-so-recent college grads who can relate to Frances’s thwarted hopes and burgeoning anxieties. But the writing is so musical, so attuned to human frailty and aspiration, that I defy anyone to watch the movie without smiling — with amusement one minute, rueful recognition the next, but probably always with some measure of simple, undiluted delight.