I’ve now written about Frances Ha so many times that I’ve effectively given up on trying to make certain I come up with something new to say when I take another crack at it. I don’t bother to review how many times I’ve already considered the film’s uniquely complex take on female friendship, or the astute depiction of the way gradual compromise can transform into a new sense of personal purpose, or the direct way the film shows how the transitional portions of a person’s life can be tracked by the different physical addresses they call home, however briefly. I’m not sure if I’ve repetitively raved about the crack sense of timing director Noah Baumbach brings to the film–appropriately mirroring the main character’s passion for dance, best seen as she races ravishingly down city streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love”–or the beautifully evocative black and white cinematography that gives the film a marvelous timelessness, as if its offering itself up to be a wittier version of memories of life as youth gives way to adulthood for anyone who cares to claim it. Or maybe I never brought those points up, knowing that at some point I’d charge myself with touting the film as one of the very best of the year, and I therefore wanted to save some good points.
I’m certain that I celebrated star and co-writer Greta Gerwig every last time, nearly ecstatic that the gifted, vividly unorthodox and piercingly honest actress helped shape the ideal role for her talents, all sharpness and questionable choices and vulnerability and wounded naivete. Despite the tendency, somewhat condescendingly, to assume that Gerwig is simply playing a version of herself, the performance works precisely because the actress doesn’t over-relate to her role, giving the pathological impulsiveness and tendency towards face-saving invention the proper clinical exploration. There’s no absolution of Frances’s worst choices, no quirky heroism afforded to her awkwardness in social situations, no moody backstory to undergird the worrisome stagnation. Instead, Frances operates in something that is recognizably the real world, where setbacks are not the stuff of karmic justice but are instead delivered with the impassive randomness of dealt cards. Part of the reason Frances has difficulty figuring out her life is because there’s no actual solution, no easy answers found by flipping to the back of the book.
Baumbach has made films as scabrously funny as Frances Ha, but I’m not sure that he’s ever made something a fully empathetic, even when he was exploring his own adolescence ravaged by divorce. Working with Gerwig, whom he understandably fell in love with, leavened his natural cynicism and inclination towards ironic distancing. Gerwig is so fully open as an actress that Baumbach can’t help but follow suit. There is a welcome sense that the film is committed to understanding the journey Frances takes, without judgement or any sort of malice. She is at that point of life where the future is suddenly far less distant than it was before. There’s no time left to grow into dreams. It’s time to shift into being a full-fledged person, the person that she will always be. Much of the pleasure of the film derives from the way this conclusion is less bittersweet than utterly natural. Have I mentioned yet that Frances Ha is absolutely great?