#9 — Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013)
In the ten year stretch of films covered by this survey, I think there may be no single scene that thrills me more than the one that begins with a title card that presents an address in Chinatown and proceeds to follow a young woman named Frances Halladay, played by the invaluable Greta Gerwig, as she runs through through the streets of New York City, knapsack flopping against her back and David Bowie’s “Modern Love” blaring on the soundtrack. Her run is soon peppered with balletic leaps and joyful spins, the act of rushing as if behind on her day — on her very existence — transformed into a celebration of simply being. Shot and edited with exquisite care, the scene is more than a movie moment. It reinforces everything that has been established about Frances, most notably her ability to persevere even when the world is bustling against here, insistent that she’s moving in the wrong direction.
Co-written by Gerwig and co-written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha is a sweet, tangy celebration of a certain point in adult life, when the aimlessness of youth starts to feel less like freedom and more like worrisome stasis. And it’s a film about friendship between women, rendered with deep honesty and psychological acuteness in Frances’s loving, frustrating push and pull with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her college cohort who has moved slightly ahead in the game of life. It’s a film about the city and uncertain attraction and the daunting challenge of trying to turn artistic inclinations into gainful employment. Film in striking black and white by cinematographer Sam Levy, the film is like Woody Allen’s Manhattan if it was concerned with people with an acute knowledge of the limits of their bank accounts and genial resignation about the society doors that will always be shut to them.
Placing it squarely in Baumbach’s comfort zone, Frances Ha is rueful and funny at once. It finds poignancy in the mundane and humor in the monumental disguised as the mundane. Baumbach’s talent for making crisp, precise dialogue come across as easy and natural is fully present, as is his ability to deliver an emotional jab with a throwaway moment. Although Baumbach’s authorship is unmistakable, the film absolutely belongs to Gerwig, who brightly, warmly forges the tone of the film with her performance and essentially foreshadows the dazzling creative voice she would bring to her own directorial efforts a few years later. She makes Frances awkward and assured at once. She’s a vivid spirit aswirl, uncertain if she should find a place to land or wait for everyone else to figure out that they, too, should take flight. Frances Ha celebrates its lead character, but it’s also realistic enough to share her ambivalence. The one things that’s certain is that the answer is never certain.