Frances Ha (2012)
Written by Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Frances is an apprentice in a New York dance company waiting for the day she’s given a place on the touring company. She spends her days cavorting through the city with her best friend Sophie, enjoying their youth and lack of serious adult responsibilities. Frances’ life is thrown into disarray when Sophie announces she’ll be moving to Tribeca for her dream apartment with someone else. What follows are a series of vignettes with Frances bouncing from place to place, finding herself losing the progress she’d felt that she had made. Never giving up her awkward and eclectic sensibilities, Frances keeps going, despite finding herself taking so many steps back, she ends up living in the dorms of her former college, pouring drinks for visiting donors.
I’ve never really gotten caught up in the enthusiasm over writer-director-actress Greta Gerwig, particularly the acting part. I’d seen her in films like Hannah Takes the Stairs, Greenberg, and the Arthur remake and was never impressed. However, seeing her in Frances Ha, I finally get why people are so enamored by her. I don’t believe those films I listed ever managed to spotlight what makes Gerwig such a compelling actor. It’s her ability to be simultaneously awkward and confident that draw the audience in and keep her character from becoming just another Brooklyn hipster. There’s a genuine sense that she’s doing her best, but life is just not being entirely fair, so we root for her and laugh with her through a series of setbacks.
Gerwig carries the entire film on her back, not to dilute the additions from supporting players. There aren’t a lot of side characters that hang around too long due to the nature of the narrative. What these other people do is highlight different types that are “making it” in New York. There’s a star dancer in the company who is implied to have moved in the “right” circles and is very traditionally educated. During a dinner conversation, people talk about how smart and well-read Sophie, who works in publishing, is while Frances points out that Sophie never reads and that it’s Frances who is a bookworm.
Two of Frances’ temporary roommates are trust fund kids, in their mid-twenties and still living off parents and step-dads while pursuing careers in the arts without any real passion. Countered to Frances is Benji who is writing samples for Saturday Night Live only to abandon it a scene later by talking about how the show is beyond its prime. Then he later talks about breaking the second act of his spec script for Gremlins 3 never to mention it again. Frances has a singular goal and no additional monetary help with all the reason to abandon her dreams but stays focused through all the challenges presented to her, still being aimless from time to time but coming back to her center.
Frances Ha manages, through both its storytelling and aesthetics is a retelling of the classic “making it in New York City” narrative. Ever since the resurfacing of Woody Allen’s sex crimes I’d been bummed because out of principal Manhattan has become a film, I’m just not comfortable revisiting any longer. I loved the look and atmosphere of that film, the way the music and the city intermingled to create something heightened and fantastic. Thankfully, that tone has been recaptured in a much less problematic film with Frances Ha. I never spent my youth in New York City but did bounce around from couches, and spare bedrooms in my twenties in urban areas and this film captures that wandering.
In the same way, Gershwin underscores Manhattan so too does Bowie become the musical voice for Frances’ journey. “Modern Love” becomes an anthem of sorts for Frances, not to play over her love interests but speaking to her passion for dance and her unwavering belief that she will make her dreams come true.
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