If “Frances Ha” is what nepotism looks like, let’s hear it for family trees.
Consider: The writer-director of this small, gemlike coming-of-age comedy is Noah Baumbach, son of former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown and author Jonathan Baumbach. Three of its most arresting supporting players — Mickey Sumner, Grace Gummer and Charlotte D’Amboise — are the daughters of Sting, Meryl Streep and ballet superstar Jacques D’Amboise, respectively. Not to be outdone, the incandescent star of “Frances Ha,” Greta Gerwig, casts her own parents as her character’s mom and dad, roles they play with a bracing lack of self-consciousness or patronizing irony in a movie set squarely in that fraught nether-region between arrested adolescence and adulthood.
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.
As a proud extension of a genre perfected by Wendy Wasserstein, Nicole Holofcener and Lena Dunham, “Frances Ha” both celebrates and looks askance at a certain type of smart, self-aware young woman who is painfully conscious of her own foibles but evolved enough to forgive herself. “I’m trying to be proactive about my life,” Frances informs her boss before asking for more hours at the studio. When she’s shot down, she flinches, then bounces right back with a reflexive “That’s okay, I’m proud of myself for asking.”
Watching Frances bumble and literally stumble her way through painful life transitions is wince-inducing but never gratuitously cruel: “Frances Ha” is too warm and laugh-out-loud funny to be a cynical downer, even when its heroine acts drunk or foolish or too desperate. Gerwig herself is too shining and kinetic a presence for the audience to believe that Frances will be chastened for long — she spends a lot of time in “Frances Ha” running, leaping and pirouetting through New York streets, not in an affected Terrence Malick-y way but in a headlong, I’m-27-and-I’m-in-New-York kind of way. She’s the radiant, whirling gyre at the center of a film that, thanks to alert and generous supporting performances, feels spontaneous and finely crafted at the same time.
Baumbach films and edits “Frances Ha” for maximum verisimilitude, whether it’s an excruciatingly awkward dinner party or the stalled torpor of a post-brunch Sunday afternoon among the un-coupled. But mostly, he has captured the sustenance and unspoken romance of female friendship: the way two women light up when they talk to one another and the barely detectable tectonic shift that occurs when they let each other down. “Frances Ha” is about a character who, by her own proud but apologetic lights, “isn’t a real person yet.” As most people who’ve been there know, that’s not inherently interesting raw material, but Baumbach and Gerwig have used it to make a real movie.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Landmark’s Bethesda Row. Contains sexual references and profanity. 86 minutes.
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