Like HBO’s Girls… but better

Noah Baumbach gets in touch with a more light-hearted side with Frances Ha.

Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

From Kicking and Screaming through Greenberg, Noah Baumbach’s films tend to be dark, with a recurring motif of disappointment, disillusionment, self-delusion and failure. And although those themes are still very much present in his latest, Frances Ha, this time he’s managed to present them in a light-hearted, fun spirit.

This unlikely feat is mostly thanks to his star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig. Her titular Frances is a directionless wannabe artist in New York, who shares with her roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) the kind of passionately co-dependent friendship you can only have in your teens and early twenties. Except that Frances is actually 27. Like Ben Stiller’s jaded aging hipster in Greenberg, only before the bitterness has set in, she’s still clinging to a youthful lifestyle that becomes less and less sustainable with the passage of time.

Frances is an apprentice at a dance company, with dreams of a dance career, but she’s clearly clumsy and uncomfortable in her body. At first I had trouble buying that she was even able to exist on this bottom tier of the dance world. Then I remembered how gracefully Gerwig danced in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and that she actually trained as a dancer. That was when it clicked for me how brilliant her performance in Frances Ha really is.

When Sophie decides to move out to live with her boyfriend, it sets off a kind of quarter-life crisis for Frances. Throughout it all, she keeps her spirits up with a kind of goofy can-do energy. From the moment early on, when she interrupts a relationship-threatening fight with her boyfriend to answer a call from Sophie with a breathlessly energetic “Yo, what’s up, girl?” — you know that you’re witnessing a total spaz. Given Baumbach’s tradition of not particularly likeable characters, it’s to Gerwig’s credit that she makes hers lovable.

From the characters to the themes, the parallels to Lena Dunham’s Girls are pronounced (Girls art-stud Adam Driver even appears in a similar, though less unhinged role). But Frances Ha is less self-consciously bratty and confrontational than Girls (and I say that as a Dunham fan). It’s also more visually stylish. Shot in black and white and full of visual nods to early Nouvelle Vague films, Frances Ha is cinematic eye candy from beginning to end.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a Baumbach film, full of dark humour, little humiliations and crushing defeats. But the collaboration with Gerwig seems to have considerably loosened him up. ■

Frances Ha opens Friday, June 28. Next week, see our July print issue for an interview with Noah Baumbach.

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