You have to love Greta Gerwig to love Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha.” Certainly Baumbach did. You don’t need a New Yorker profile to tell you that whatever official “romance” was or was not going on when the film was being shot, the director was, at the very least, professionally smitten with his star and co-writer (who had previously been one of the bright spots of his not-so-lovable “Greenberg”).
I’m not in love with Gerwig. I know some critics and moviegoers who are, but I’d have to clarify my own feeling as “heavy like,” not “love.” It generally makes me happy to see her on screen, but there’s a large annoyance and lifted-eyebrow creep-out factor to “Frances Ha” that definitely gets in the way of all-out love.
Once upon a time, Gerwig was a princess of mini-budget “mumblecore” movies. Now, in “Frances Ha,” she’s a small part of one of the more fascinating little wavelets in American movies and TV – young actresses who write and, in one case, also direct movies and TV about the condition of being young and female in America.
Their queen is Lena Dunham, star and creator of HBO’s little milestone “Girls.” “The Oprah of Hipsters,” Gerwig calls her in New Yorker profile-land. The most fascinating, by far, is Brit Marling, who wrote and starred in the brilliant film “The East,” which is opening in Buffalo soon.
Gerwig plays a 27-year-old dancer (Frances) who is good enough to teach little kids, but isn’t quite good enough to win a place as a regular member of the dance company she works for.
The love of her life, really, is her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). They’re like a “lesbian couple that don’t have sex anymore,” jokes Frances. But Sophie, as they say, is on another “life track” – an increasingly committed relationship with a young stockbroker. When Sophie and her boyfriend move in together, that leaves Frances in a perpetual search for an affordable place to live.
Luckily, she’s lovely and smiling and goofy and adorable most of the time – when, that is, she isn’t pushing it. So friends and acquaintances offer her places to live and hang out.
“Frances Ha” is about some months in the life of a young woman in a secretly desperate search for traction and not having much success finding it.
It’s all from a time of life where a lot of things are still “cute” that wouldn’t necessarily be considered so 10 years later – holding on to a drainpipe while peeing on subway tracks in the wee small hours, for instance.
Frances suspects she’s become pathetic, but she refuses to succumb to depression. She remains hopeful – which is why other people remain hopeful for her. Her joke with male friends in similar life situations is to call each other “undateable.”
Men of different sorts flow through her life – some of them even abashed, would-be lovers. But there’s no traction there either, just at one point, a room in a good apartment with a couple of guys from rich families. (Among the film’s quieter triumphs is its insistence on reminding us that to be a young, up-and-coming artist in New York City means that a wealthy family is almost certainly supporting you.)
The plot moves around a lot – Sacramento to visit her parents, back to college in Poughkeepsie (Baumbach’s alma mater Vassar, presumably) to teach dance and have a place to live, to Washington Heights.
She’s easy to root for and smile indulgently at. Not as much as Diane Keaton in a Woody Allen movie 35 years ago, but easy enough. But she’s also, on occasion, easy to be saddened and annoyed by. And you can multiply all of that by 10 when Baumbach fills the movie with the kind of relentlessly twerpy music which is constantly supposed to remind you that it’s a comedy (maybe it was displacement, but at times I wanted to strangle the composer).
Baumbach’s best decision, by far, was to film it in black and white. His cinematographer Sam Levy (“Wendy and Lucy”) gives it all a 1960s French New Wave look, even when the film is about lives that aren’t quite new enough anymore.
There are foreshadowings of the kind of domestic and family angst you see in Baumbach’s better films – “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding” – but it’s all about a young life in flux.
That flux, inch by inch, is what we’re watching. The title is explained in the film’s final image. Loving Gerwig, as I say, would help immeasurably.
Heavy “like,” though, will get you through it pleasantly.
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Grace Gummer
Director: Noah Baumbach
Running time: 86 minutes
Rating: R for sex talk and profanity.
The Lowdown: A 27-year-old dancer smiles through a life of relationship anxiety and professional confusion.