Frances Ha Review
by Daniel Rester
Writer-director Noah Baumbach did some obvious studying of French New Wave and early Woody Allen films in preparation for Frances Ha, his jumpy and charming new film that deals with the life of a 27-year-old woman named Frances. The title character is played by the lovely Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach. The two have fashioned a dramatic comedy that has key influences running through its veins but feels fresh at the same time.
Frances is a college graduate and dancer, enjoying the spontaneousness of her and her best friend’s lives in The Big Apple – right after ending a relationship that could have gone somewhere. However, soon the best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), decides to move on as she develops a relationship with a new man in her life. The shrinking of the close and eccentric friendship causes Frances to hop from one place to the next in her life, becoming undecided in how exactly she wants to move forward with her aspirations, relationships, etc. – or lack thereof.
Ha could have easily just been another clichéd and bland romantic comedy; bits of the script even have Frances “finding herself” in (where else?) Paris. But Baumbach and Gerwig’s film has a certain spark that keeps it alive — despite having some formulaic trappings. The script contains less of a narrative than a platform for being able to observe chunks of a particular person’s life, with many scenes that were surely improvised. Yet the writing is smart in exploring Frances’ varied life, and the passion from Baumbach and Gerwig can be felt. The filmmakers take small stabs at Frances, but they also never judge her in a negative light. They instead find a balance of melancholy and sweetness in the nature of the character, presenting her as offbeat but completely human.
Baumbach does a fine job here from a directorial standpoint. The director is clearly in touch with all of the assorted characters in Ha, expertly showing their different worlds – from male roommates to worried family members — as Frances passes through them. At some points there are really only snippets of some of the characters’ lives, yet Baumbach doesn’t hesitate to try and make every one of them interesting. Baumbach and Editor Jennifer Lame do allow the story to run free at times (resorting to showing mini-sections that are unrelated to others and having some occasional jump cuts), but Baumbach keeps Frances and key aspects of her life (namely the relationship with Sophie) in focus. He also finds a nice range of emotions in both small and large moments. The results of the content and form (relying heavily on editing) is a bittersweet, diced-up character study that manages to stay together (enough) and has resonance to boot.
The glue that really does hold Ha together, though, is Gerwig. Her performance as Frances is affectionate and spot-on. The actress isn’t afraid of making the character goofy, selfish, fun, sad, etc., allowing her to be well-rounded characteristically. She really lets the audience root for her but also realize her flaws as well. This is an Oscar nomination-worthy performance.
The rest of the cast also shines. Sumner’s character is a bit odd like Francis is, but she is less likable as a whole. But that isn’t to say the performance isn’t strong; it is. There are also many other entertaining supporting players, including Adam Driver and Michael Esper. Yet the only other performance that really stands out other than Gerwig’s is from Michael Zegen. Zegen plays Benji, one of Francis’ male roommates in the film. The character has a love for writing and music, and declares Francis as “undateable.” Benji is a colorful side character, and mostly succeeds due to the care of Zegen’s performance.
One more thing that is worthy of praise is the cinematography by Sam Levy — which helps give the movie some of its touches that are similar to New Waveand early Allen films. Levy and Baumbach shot the film in black-and-white and digitally. The b&w here is beautiful, with Levy capturing multiple shades of gray and paying close attention to the lighting that certain environments might have (including different settings in New York, Paris, and Sacramento). The digital choice allows the movie to look clean, but perhaps the grain of film would have been better fitting for the overall presentation that Baumbach was going for (especially with some of the production design and set decoration (especially the apartments) by Sam Lisenco and Hannah Rothfield, respectively).
Ha may be a bit too quirky and artsy for many, but I found it to be well-made and refreshing — and containing an amazing performance by Gerwig at the center. The movie works within some past styles as well, but it feels more like an original than just a straight-up homage. And at a breezy 86 minutes, Ha zips along and then stays with you afterwards. It’s a real treat during this first half of the 2013 movie year.
P.S. The reasoning behind the title may just put a smile on one’s face.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-).