“Tell me the story of us.” So says Frances (Greta Gerwig) to Sophie (Mickey Sumner) near the beginning of Noah Baumbach’s Allen-channeling ode to the so-called ‘millennial generation’. The story of Frances and Sophie, in Sophie’s words at least, is an idealised view of their future, where Frances is a successful dancer and Sophie a publisher. The problem is, for a large amount of the film, although Frances is a dancer in a company, she does very little, almost taking pride in her apathy. This seems to bring with it some kind of self-righteous self-loathing that comes with her lifestyle, particularly when she says to two of her friends that she’s poor, almost needing to convince them that she is so she can feel bad about herself. I’m aware that something like that is par for the course in a film like Frances Ha, which channels Lena Dunham’s Girls more than it does Woody Allen (in spite of a gorgeous black and white cinematography courtesy of Sam Levy, who’s shots of New York and Paris bring to mind, at the best moments, the iconic Manhattan), but for these two things (i.e. “the story of us” and the apathetic reality of Frances’ situation) to be at odds all the time makes it difficult to be engaged or sympathetic towards Frances, as if, for some inexplicable reason, barricades are built around her to avoid any connection from being made.
My minor qualms with the character aside, Gerwig’s performance as Frances has some truly wonderful moments. A lot of the time it feels a little simple in terms of acting, perhaps somwhere between Alvy Singer and Hannah Horvath, but there are truly excellent pieces of acting that shine through the film. All of these moments come whenever Frances doesn’t indulge in how ‘difficult’ her life is, and instead we see her facing, rather than her lifestyle or career choices, the personal issues that have arisen around her (although how Frances is supposed to be “un-dateable” will forever mystify me), from her realising things that have gone wrong as she talks at a dinner party, or, in one of the best and most human moments of the film, consoling a drunk and confused Sophie. And while Gerwig delivers a strong (and at times excellent) performance, for me it’s Sumner’s performance as Sophie that runs away with the film. She perhaps gets better material, but seeing her drunk and angry towards her boyfriend near the end of the film is one of the most powerful moments in it.
That’s what’s a little strange about Frances Ha. Although it is largely a comedy. and there are plenty of good jokes, all of that seems to be overshadowed by the flashes of drama that sneak out through the witticisms and the apathy. The script (penned by Baumbach and Gerwig) is the film’s strongest element, since it does a great deal with seemingly simple dialogue, and its only really hampered by a few montages of Frances and Sophie’s escapades that makes the pacing seem jarring at times, slowing it down so that it feels longer than its short running time. Frances Ha also boasts an ensemble that, while a little underused, is destined to be underrated, with Adam Driver, an alum from Girls giving an excellent turn, especially since he doesn’t just make it a mimicry of his performance on the aforementioned HBO comedy.
There’s a lot of good in Frances Ha, and when it’s good, it’s great. From the stunning photography to a pair of great performances at its core, it feels like a breath of fresh air, light in tone, with perfectly contrasting moments of darkness. It’s not without faults, from pacing that’s a little off, as well as characterisation (and the cheap jokes that come with it) that feel like nothing more than a cheap one liner. But what’s most interesting about it is, since the credits rolled on the screening I was at, and since I finished writing this review, my admiration for the film has grown a little. It may sound strange or hyperbolic, but Frances Ha is a film to fall in love with.