Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” is the writer and director’s best film to date. A black-and-white French New Wave inspired piece that’s honest and telling, funny and smart, wry and sad, effervescent and fulfilling. In short, it’s a masterwork of independent cinema. Baumbach’s writing partner and real life girlfriend Greta Gerwig have proved a dynamic dream team. As an actress, Gerwig has never been better. First introduced in Baumbach’s lesser “Greenberg,” here as the titular Frances she is self-deprecating, awkward, clumsy, hapless, yet attractive, charming and endearing. “Frances Ha” is not only razor sharp about the anxiety of post-college life but, even more, about the complexity of female friendship — two topics which, once combined, tap into something much deeper about coming-of-age at a time in life when someone’s supposed to have already come of age.
Frances is like Hannah Horvath of “Girls” a few more years down the road, floundering trying to find her purpose in New York. She lives with her best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), from college who she knows inside and out. As they put it, they’re like an old lesbian couple who doesn’t have sex anymore. When asked by her boyfriend to move in with him, Frances shrinks away using her loyalty to Sophie and not wanting to break their lease as an excuse to not commit. Unbeknownst to her, however, Sophie is already planning to end the lease and move out into her dream neighborhood of Tribeca with another girlfriend. This shock to her system sends Frances floating in the universe on her own, coasting along with too little money and too many temporary roommates.
She bunks with Sophie’s friends, Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), while trying to stay afloat at her dance company whose director is gradually and nicely trying to edge Frances out even if she fails to realize it. When asked what she does for work, Frances says it’s complicated. “Because what you do is complicated?” “Because I don’t really…do it,” she responds. One of Lev’s nightly female visitors tells Frances at breakfast she looks older than she is. Not wiser or more responsible, just an older face. This is the state Frances is in, and though watching her struggling journey can make you cringe, Baumbach infuses it with such graceful delight that you can’t turn away.
The point is that Frances is in a downward spiral. She takes a brief reprieve from her free fall to visit her parents (played by Gerwig’s actual parents) back home in Sacramento for Christmas. It’s a brilliantly constructed sequence, a flurry of family gatherings, warm conversation and familial feelings until next thing Frances knows, she’s back at the airport waving goodbye. What follows is Baumbach not shying away from bleakness by having Frances subvert the typical girl traveling to find herself by giving her the most depressing trip to Paris imaginable.
What’s to learn from Baumbach and Gerwig’s “Frances Ha”? That everyone struggles to find what it is they’re looking for in the first place; life can drift and lose direction, thus mirroring the film’s very style; and above all, no matter how tight-knit or seemingly endless, friendships shift, change and dissipate at a moment’s notice. And in the face of losing what once was your rock, your life raft, all we can do is learn to press on.