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Movie Review: Frances Ha

Baumbach and Gerwig find lightness and hope on the road to adulthood in ‘Frances Ha’ (Our grade: B+)
Frances Ha
Genre: Comedy
Running Time: 85 min
MPAA rating: R
Release Date: 2012-09-01
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By "Matthew Odam"
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman

“I’m so embarrassed,” Greta Gerwig’s Frances says at the beginning of “Frances Ha.” “I’m not a real person yet.”

The beautiful but unkempt Frances (“I’m not messy, I’m busy,” she likes to tell herself) is a real person. She’s just not an adult. She’s stuck on the bridge between collegiate life and her dreams, but the ground is becoming increasingly unstable.

Director Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote the movie with mumblecore veteran Gerwig, has spent much of his career examining young adults (and some old enough to know better) having trouble accepting the transition into the next stage of life. His debut feature spelled it out in the title — “Kicking and Screaming” — and the theme continued to some degree up to his most recent, “Greenberg,” which featured a pitiful 40-something titular character weighted by neuroses and narcissism.

Each of his movies has comedic undertones of varying frequency, but most feel rather bleak. “Frances Ha” has a dark humor flowing through it, but the movie has a joyful lilt not found in most of Baumbach’s work. The auteur has said that he and Gerwig fell in love with each other while making “Frances Ha,” and that spirit imbues the black-and-white movie that nods to Woody Allen and the French New Wave, a cause aided by a whimsical score from legendary French composer Georges Delerue.

Frances is an apprentice in a New York City dance company. She may not be a star, but she figures it is only a matter of time. While she waits for her dream to become a reality, she relies on the sisterly friendship of her roommate Sophie (a wonderful Mickey Sumner). The two day-drink together and meet up for al fresco lunches during the work week and speak in the quippy shorthand reserved for best friends.

But when Sophie decides to move into a new apartment across town, the suddenly homeless and broke Frances begins pinballing around the city — most notably crashing temporarily with two trust-fund “artists” (played by Michael Zegen and Adam Driver of “Girls”). Driver’s appearance as a charming lothario will undoubtedly bring to mind the HBO show that has brought him notoriety, but “Frances Ha” is not “Girls.” The most entitled and neurotic characters in Baumbach’s world are used as comic relief, not lead protagonists.

Frances lives in her own world, but it is one made of hope and romanticism not discomfiting egoism. Her unbridled joy is best captured in a wonderful long tracking shot of the 27-year-old twirling, leaping and sprinting down the sidewalk to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” But the music eventually stops, and the inevitability of adulthood infringe on her fantasy.

When Sophie decides to depart for Tokyo with her investment banker boyfriend, Frances begins to spin out of control, and the true emotional impact of the movie arrives. The story bounces Frances to her parents’ house in Sacramento (a quiet montage of suburban bliss), a sad and misspent weekend of futile searching in Paris, and back to her (and Baumbach’s) college campus in Poughkeepsie.

When she can no longer avoid the truth of her circumstances, Frances starts to make steps toward maturity and realizes that maybe being an adult doesn’t mean the death of hope. Or that being an adult can take many shapes.

Though characters rotate in and out of Frances’s sphere, this movie belongs to Gerwig (though I can’t wait to see more of Sumner following her tough and tender performance). The 29-year-old actress interacts with the other characters while also being removed from them. There is a brightness to her that places the dynamic character in stark relief to the world around her. Her rawness and honestly make her missteps (of which there are many) more endearing than humiliating.

Baumbach seems to have resolved some of the torment he’s wrestled with over his almost 20-year career, and it is hard to imagine the effervescent Gerwig did not play an important role in that transformation.

The light “Frances Ha” provides skittish moments of heartbreak and confusion on the humorous path to adulthood, but it sends a comforting message that our fate may use the same language as our dreams even if it doesn’t tell the same story.

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May 30, 2013 - Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman - Matthew Odam

“I’m so embarrassed,” Greta Gerwig’s Frances says at the beginning of “Frances Ha.” “I’m not a real person yet.”

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