Noah Baumbach is good at making movies, but he's best at making movies about my life. Before graduating college I watched Kicking and Screaming and the prospects for the future depressed the fuck out of me, but like the characters in that film I live near a college (just not my alma mater) and exchange clever dialogue about minutia with my college buddies. And I already feel like Greenberg most of the time. I just have yet to do coke with teens while listening to Duran Duran. But, I guess for my age it would be The Killers. This is not something to aspire to, but it is happening to me and I don't know how to stop it.
Kicking and Screaming is actually a good touchstone for Frances Ha, Baumbach's new film starring Greenberg's Greta Gerwig. It's all about the experience of being in your twenties — the hanging out, fucking up, putting off important things and spending too much money on dumb stuff that you probably shouldn't be spending money on. But it's also about friendship and how people move on even though you don't want them to.
Frances is a dancer. Well, more accurately, she's an apprentice with a dance company in New York City — basically an understudy — but set to perform and finally make some money at an upcoming holiday show. She lives with her best friend Sophia, and stuff is great. That is, until it isn't: Sophia moves to her dream apartment and there's no financial room for Frances at the company. As Frances, Gerwig is low-key but expressive, which is endearing even when she does some shitty, dumb, insecure things. It's a performance that begs understanding and identification rather than judgment.
Written by Baumbach and Gerwig, Frances Ha is hardly a narrative in the traditional sense, but rather a series of sequences in Frances' life, which is maybe a sign that Gerwig comes from a mumblecore background. However, this isn't an aimless piece by any stretch, as the whole thing has two throughlines running through it — her increasingly strained and distant friendship with Sophia and her inabilities to maintain employment and shelter even though everyone around her seems to be keeping it together pretty well. So, in light of that, she puts up a front and pretends things are going great, even though they're not, which sometimes turns into a delusion.
In other words, it's the perfect movie about being 27. As someone who shares the age of the main character, it's hard to think you're doing well when everyone around you gets regular paychecks and seem to be capable of doing stuff by virtue of having money while you're doing what you love for little money, if any. People are making big moves and being real adults while you're struggling and existence increasingly feels like a race that you're losing while people are writing articles about how you suck because you were born in a certain era and not theirs. That last part doesn't happen in this film, but I imagine the kinds of people who write those kinds of articles will use Frances Ha as fuel for their fire.
Which isn't surprising, as Frances Ha bears a lot of similarity to HBO's Girls — and, to some extent, Lena Dunham's film Tiny Furniture — right down to the brief forway into visiting her parents, a scene in a tub and Adam Driver being in this thing. Gerwig even looks a bit like Dunham, come to think of it. This film's a lot less steeped in cringe-comedy, though there's only one scene — wherein Frances does the insecure talking-too-much thing over dinner with strangers — that gives one the overwhelming urge to mutter "please… stop talking…" while watching the movie between fingers. It's hard to explain away the similarity — is it a response to Girls? Is Greta beefing with Lena? — so at the risk of revealing my own shortcomings as a critic I'm just gonna say that I was pretty okay with it, likely because the film has a much different feel beyond these surface level similarities.
For one thing, I'm spellbound by the fact that this isn't a film about a young woman trying to find a boyfriend. Love's an easy target in any movie, and too often it's a going concern because somebody thinks a film needs to hit every demographic. Thankfully this is an indie (ish) flick and so Baumbach and Gerwig focus on a story where people have relationships and talk about them, but it's not the point. An intense friendship can be just as important, especially in a transition period like your twenties, and Frances Ha understands that. I have it on good authority that women have concerns beyond searching for the perfect romantic love.
Surprisingly, Frances Ha doesn't find Noah Baumbach going bigger with his seventh film. Appopriate to his character's constant strapped-for-cash status, cinematographer Sam Levy shot the film in digital black and white, making that whole "film" thing a bit of a misnomer. But there's more to the aesthetic than a lack of color. Aside from some daytime suburban scenes that don't quite look right as the style is more conducive to buildings and interiors, Levy's cinematography brings a certain texture to the film that I couldn't quite figure out until I saw other people on
the net (I ain't gonna front) cite Truffaut and Jarmusch. I think it's accurate, as their films — particularly the black and white ones — generally create a sense of literal groundedness, like the camera operator's on the sidewalk with them, not on a fucking cherry picker. Frances Ha is a film where the camera quietly hangs out with its characters, not distances itself by doing clever shit. It's not like Tiny Furniture where the filmmaker approaches her subjects in a sterile, calculated manner — this feels like a film that could be made by the characters in it, where the most expensive thing they do is put the camera in/on a car to drive alongside Gerwig in certain sequences.
If it tried to be more lush or clever, Frances Ha would have felt like a completely wrongheaded attempt to cash in on the whole "millenials" business, but the collaboration between Gerwig and Baumbach is a fruitful one. Together, they make Frances Ha not a film about a specific generation, but a film about adulthood, relationships and learning how to deal with all that shit.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his Tumblr. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, recently ended, so now you can read it in its entirety.