Tales of 20-somethings in New York City epitomize the independent film scene, as does the star and co-writer of “Frances Ha,” Greta Gerwig, the indisputable indie queen. Together with writer and director Noah Baumbach, “Frances” is practically the comfort food of independent film, a genre label usually reserved for something edgy and different. However, despite the film residing in the wheelhouse of its talent, it somehow finds a certain freshness and quirky sense of inspiration that you typically don’t get from veterans.
Re-teaming after the slightly more Hollywood-ized “what am I doing with my life?” film in 2010’s “Greenberg,” Gerwig and Baumbach have taken a step back into something a little more on-the-sleeve. “Frances Ha” hides behind nothing — it is pure, unadulterated relationship-based emotion featuring entirely unremarkable characters meant to reflect the utter mundaneness and raw beauty that is the life of a struggling middle class person.
Frances is a lover. She aspires to dance professionally despite the obvious limitations of her talent, and she has a powerful bond with her friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Their friendship, which transcends most on-screen friendships in terms of closeness and authenticity, is the core love story of the film. As much as Frances attempts to navigate new roommates and friendships, nothing can replace the connection between her and Sophie, two people who just get each other. The quote of the film comes from Frances describing when you know “that’s your person.”
Perhaps the mere fact that “Frances” is a good love story that doesn’t center on a non- platonic heterosexual relationship is what elevates it, but Baumbach makes some sound choices behind the camera too. Filming in black and white these days almost always comes off as a bit bold if not pretentious, but it works especially well in a number of scenes that employ classical music or classic film music from French composer Georges Delerue, adding foreign art-house and nostalgic tones to remind us that while the story feels modern, its core is timeless.
“Frances” is put together in sequences. The camera becomes a removed observer for quick snippets of scenes throughout, letting us see how Frances interacts with the world though we know what’s going on inside; we have a sense of how she feels. All of these sequences are tied together by a song or musical style and have a clear beginning, middle and end, and the many sequences in the film are strung together with large chunks of time missing in between. There’s no traditional plot, just a few key dramatic moments here and there involving Frances’ career and relationships that shape and inform the rest of the film. At times, this can get extremely boring, but there are enough momentary gems throughout to keep the feeling of boredom from overpowering the other sentiments.
Frances’ dance career isn’t the most interesting storyline in the film, but it’s so relatable anyway. You always see hard-working, talented dancers in films, not average dancers who deeply care about dancing. It’s clear that dance is what Frances loves, but she struggles, unable to make the company with which she apprentices. Yet she commits to doing it her way, and despite her ever-changing living situation and Sofie coming in and out of her life, she remains locked on her focal point, like a dancer doing a pirouette.
Gerwig just owns these kinds of performances. She creates incredible nuance and mannerisms for her characters to make them quirky but totally believable. A scene in which she leaves dinner with her newfound friend Lev (Adam Driver) to run around looking for an ATM is over-the-top but kind of endearing. You never question Gerwig’s authenticity, and the script steers so far away from anything resembling melodrama that Frances is never pushed into the kind of larger-than-life situation that requires an actor to really really work in order to bring a film down to earth, not that Gerwig would be incapable. The couple of freakouts Frances does have are weird, but totally natural.
Fans of Baumbach’s debut, “Kicking and Screaming,” will see “Frances Ha” as a return to form for the filmmaker, if for no other reason than the age of the characters, though “Frances” proves how much he has matured in writing witty dialogue that actually feels authentic. The big key difference between “Frances” and Baumbach’s other work, however, is the choice to focus on a central character and not an ensemble film in which we have to feel connected to what’s going on with every character. His style seems best suited for these kinds of character studies.
Although one might be tempted to describe “Frances Ha” as “the latest indie movie starring Greta Gerwig,” it’s more than just a drop in the films about 20-somethings bucket.
Directed by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver