Film Review: Frances Ha.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Frances Ha.

Frances Haliday (Greta Gerwig) is 27, soon to be 28. She is an apprentice in a dance company and lives in New York with her long-term best friend Sophie. When Sophie moves out, Frances’s life loses its moorings. She loses her job, her boyfriend and her home. She floats from New York to Sacramento to Paris and New York again, jobless, homeless and seemingly friendless. This doesn’t deter the luminous Frances as she finds her own way, through the ups and downs, to move forward.

Co-writers, life partners and frequent collaborators, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach worked on Frances Ha in 2013.  Baumbach was nominated twice for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Marriage Story (2019), both of which he wrote and directed. Other films he has both written and directed include Margot at the Wedding (2007), While We're Young (2014), Mistress America (2015) and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017).

Gerwig was the sole female director nominated for an Oscar in 2018 for her debut film, a coming-of-age drama Lady Bird. In 2019 the couple’s individual films, Little Women and Marriage Story (which coincidentally, both star Laura Dern), were both nominated for six Oscars each, including Best Picture.

Frances Ha is a relatable, modern comic coming-of-age story about friendship, sadness, joy and life. 

Image from film Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach, produced by Noah Baumbach, Scott Rudin et al; streamed by Kanopy database

FRANCES HA

A celebration of friendship, of the mundanity of day to day life – those moments that seem to barely exist while they’re happening, that become profound if we’re lucky enough to be able see them from the distance of time. This is the movie Frances Ha. A messy, sometimes inconsequential, tale seen through a lens that adores its subjects, the spaces they fill, the problems they run from, and the crackling joy that simmers like an electrical current through all of it.  The unexpected loops we put ourselves through, the quiet tragedy of slowly dissolving relationships, and the beauty of the whole mess.  Writer/star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbauch made a film that even on its immediate release felt like an old favourite, to be dusted off and re-visited over the years, a film to grow old with.

Our hero is Frances Halladay, 27 years old. Frances is a dancer, struggling to make ends meet and bring her ideal future into being as she navigates the pitfalls and wonders of life in New York city. Frances’ life is thrown into an emotional disarray by the departure of her best friend and most meaningful companion Sophie, as she leaves their modest Brooklyn apartment for a new life in the ritzier (and significantly more expensive) Tribeca neighbourhood. The ideal, modest life that Frances lived is coming apart, and the reality of a colder, Sophie-less world is manifesting.

It makes perfect sense that Frances would be a dancer. The whole movie is kinetic, as it’s expanding cast of characters bounce of one another and Frances runs and spins (often literally) through an urban world that is still exciting, witty and full of new unexpected encounters, even as the sense grows that the clock is ticking, and with each passing month her future is less defined than she had hoped. If she stops, the momentum that seems to give her life might well slow and become something much greyer, much less hopeful. Even as her new life begins in a shared Chinatown apartment, the feeling that all of this is just transitory, and that time is leaving her behind lingers around the edges of every interaction she seems to have.

Speaking of grey – the decision to shoot the movie entirely in a rich black & white palette is key to how we understand the story.  There have been many comparisons made between this movie and Woody Allen’s 1979 piece Manhattan. Both are episodic examinations of the life of New York artists, in which we’re thrown into social situations with little preamble or warning, catching up as we go along with the film, much like suddenly being transported into a house party full of strangers and having to play catch-up. While Allen’s movie looked at the lives of relatively privileged creators and ultimately their unappealing vanities, Gerwig and Baumbauch take a refreshingly more relatable approach by acknowledging how terrifying it can be to take a punt at the art world while living hand-to-mouth in a city that can be as uncaring as it is spectacular. Like Manhattan, the black & white presentation gives everything the sheen of being a memory – even while we’re with Frances and her struggles to find herself, there’s a sense that all of this has been preserved, that we’re looking through a sheen of memory and distance. In many ways the movie is like a photo album that can talk to us.

As the reality of Frances’ and Sophie’s relationship matures into something lessened and melancholy, and a series of poorly made choices take her away from everything she thought held meaning, we also get to see her life blossom in unexpected and strangely rewarding ways. This is a movie about hard-won little joys, and the surprising twists life throws at us – sometimes rewarding, always a little disconcerting.

Frances Ha is a movie about the choices the world presents to us, and what we decide to do with these choices. It’s a joyous whirlwind that never panders or speaks down its audience, and it asks us to take a second and just breathe all of this in – the mistakes and the swerves and that ever-crackling charge of simply being alive. Small as it can seem, in the end that’s all that there is.

Further reading

  • Lost Illusions. Perry, A. 2015. Film Comment, 51(4), pp.22-27. (article)
  • Deconstructing Frances. Anonymous. 2013. Sight and Sound; 23 (8), pp.25-27. (article)
  • The way we weren’t. O'Malley, Sheila. 2019. Film Comment; 55(5), pp.48-49. (article)
  • Emotional pratfalls. Taubin, Amy. 2013. Film Comment; 49(3), pp.25-27. (article)
  • Indies Fight for Summer Screens. Stewart, Andrew. 2013. Variety; 321 (4), pp.22-23 (article)
  • A Companion to American Indie Film. King, Geoff (ed) John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2016, [See pp.197–199] (ebook)
  • 101 Most Influential Coming of Age Movies. Uytdewilligen, Ryan. Algora Publishing, 2016, [See p.164] (ebook)
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