NYFF 2012: With Frances Ha, Baumbach Returns to the Milieu of Twentysomethings

09/28/2012 9:30 AM |

Gerwig and Baumbach at the NYFF press conference

Frances Ha begins with snatches of dialogue, bits of conversations. Noah Baumbach, who directed the movie and co-wrote it with real-life paramour Greta Gerwig, has always enjoyed catching bits of talk, often decontextualized: Kicking and Screaming opens with a tracking shot that catches several choice lines (“I’ll tell you the worst thing about losing a foot”), and his barely seen pseudonymous feature Highball brims over with brilliant half-heard conversations. But in Frances Ha—which marks a return to the twentysomething years after Baumbach graduated to the family dynamics of The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, as well as the arrested-fortysomethingness of Greenberg—the conversational fragments are even more elusive, even less jokey, though still funny. Those cuts keep the pace snapping, even when Frances (Gerwig) isn’t going much of anywhere.

Frances, an aspiring dancer with an apprenticeship at a prestigious company, bounces around New York City. When she doesn’t find her place, she bounces further: up to Poughkeepsie, home to California, over to Paris. The movie is something of a break-up story—in its broad outlines, it’s quite similar to Lola Versus, the studio-ish indie rom-com Gerwig starred in earlier this year—but the guy who Frances breaks off with early in the movie doesn’t figure into it. Fifteen or 20 minutes later, he’s forgotten; the real break-up comes when Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her roommate and best friend, decides to move out of their Brooklyn apartment. They drift apart, and Frances Ha sets itself apart from Kicking and Screaming not just in its quarterlife-crisis setting (Girls-era New York versus sleepy mid-90s college town) but in its isolation: the guys in Kicking, for better and often worse, had each other. Without Sophie, Frances isn’t sure who she has.

If I appear to have Kicking and Screaming on the brain, it’s only because it’s probably my favorite movie. But Frances Ha doesn’t retread that film’s ground; its ensemble (including, in a very small role, Josh Hamilton—Grover!) flits in and out of the film, with Frances as the only real constant. Gerwig plays her with an apologetic eagerness to please: “I’m sorry” and “I feel bad” slip from her mouth with disturbing ease. But Frances doesn’t prequelize Gerwig’s character in Greenberg; though it has moments of melancholy, this movie has vivacity. It smiles. At the NYFF press conference, Baumbach described it as a cinematic version of a homemade pop album: low-budget but catchy. It fits, then, that the movie, shot in gorgeous black-and-white, has so many moments where the loveliness feels almost self-contained, as when the camera follows Gerwig sprinting and leaping down the street to the strains of David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and perfect Baumbach throwaway lines (“This apartment is very aware of itself,” Sophie says about the Chinatown pad where Frances crashes with two male friends).

Frances Ha has such a spring in its step, in fact, that I was taken aback by the small but distinct hit of emotion in the movie’s closing moments, which lingers through the credits. It feels inevitable but also effortless. “I’m always trying to be normal,” Gerwig said at the press conference when asked about her distinct acting style. That about covers the style of the movie: unaffected—and anything but normal.

Frances Ha screens on Sunday and later on in October. Click here for more info.