A believable coming-of-age comedy is a rare thing in the kaleidoscopic, pluralistic West. Even rarer is that a film that dares to be honest about the folly of our times and the superficiality and artificiality of our relationships without resorting to cynicism or world weariness. Therefore, a film that ticks both these boxes while being fun and endearing, maintaining its integrity without putting on airs, is a thing worth celebrating.
Co-written by director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg) and his girlfriend Gerwig, who gives an incomparable performance as the eponymous heroine, Frances Ha seems aware of its stylistic influences, but doesn’t carry them on its sleeve. The crew wisely avoid starstruck set pieces and deliberate hat tips honouring influential auteurs – this kind of thing often smells of self-congratulation. You can look for influences if you’re into that (and as for female characterisation and cinematography, Woody Allen seems to have offered instruction), but you’ll be just as entertained if you go with the film’s incident-peppered flow and let its bittersweet melancholy wash over you.
Although the film’s emotional tapestry (Frances’s in most scenes) is constantly in restless transition, to speak of an actual plot is somewhat misleading – a bit like Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan. A beginning and end can be identified, but I couldn’t point to an unequivocal point-of-no-return. Frances Ha is not about what happens or how: it’s about how it feels, to Frances and to you in the audience.
Out of a vibrant and cinematographically memorable picture of present-day New York – augmented with a few angles invoking the literary New York of The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road – emerges the story of the 27-year-old, happy-go-lucky tomboy Frances. Four years out of college, Frances’s roommate Sophie (Sumner) is her soulmate – right up until she isn’t either anymore. Summoned by adult life with all its obligations and demands, Sophie’s new life cruelly highlights Frances’s lack of direction and disinclination. Her sense of alienation is thoughtfully narrated and charges the film’s wisdom, charm and comedy. A sincere, poetic film in the post-Beatnik tradition – with girls taking centre stage.