Thursday, December 5, 2013

Gerwig Gets Magical in the Gen Y Critique "Frances Ha"

Co-writer/star Greta Gerwig brings complexity to the role of Frances.

It’s easy to imagine most people reacting one of two ways to Frances Ha. Some will probably find it to be a frustrating and boring look at the inconsequential meanderings of a privileged and aimless bohemian. Others will undoubtedly identify with the character’s idiosyncratic dreams and post grad anxieties.

Most of it may come down to where the viewer falls along the generational spectrum. After all, the film, like Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, has been labeled as generationally defining, and, really that’s a hard point to argue. 

Generation Y is a dreamer generation. Our parents, teachers and mentors – many of whom, we must keep in mind, could’ve really been somebody if they had gotten the opportunity – sold us on the concept that we could do whatever we wanted, that if we went to college and followed the script, we could achieve our dreams.

But then we get out into the world and came face to face with the reality that this type of success is hard. That it takes work and sacrifice. And even then, even then, only a few people really make it. Not everybody who “goes for it” becomes the next great actor, or novelist, or, in the case of Frances Ha, the next great dancer. 

Yes, this is a movie that touches on a generational problem of privileged Americans, but, to sell it as only that would be a mistake. There’s something universal and timeless about failing to achieve a dream and then having to redefine expectations and goals. And I think what’s so fascinating about this movie is that it somehow pokes fun at and empathizes with one woman in the process of realizing things aren’t going to go the way she thought they would. 

Frances (co-writer Greta Gerwig) is a 27-year-old struggling to achieve her dreams of becoming a world-class dancer. She’s still just an apprentice at her New York dance studio, but she’s convinced herself that an opportunity to take on a more prominent role is coming soon.

In the meantime, she spends much of her time eating, drinking, play fighting, and often crashing in the same bed with her best pal and roommate Sophie (Sting’s daughter, Mickey Sumner). It’s a dependent relationship, one that is dictating Frances' romantic life, as evidenced by a refusal to move in with a boyfriend because she just couldn’t do that to Sophie. At separate instances in the narrative, Frances comments that they are “like a lesbian couple who don’t have sex anymore” and “the same person with different hair.”
Frances Ha is the rare movie that focuses on female friendship.
Frances’ existence is thrown for a loop when Sophie announces she is going to move out of the Brooklyn apartment they share. Unable to afford the rent on her own, Frances enters a nomadic period, bouncing from place to place as she continues to get worse and worse news about work and grow further and further apart from Sophie, who seems to be consciously fighting against the arrested development that has consumed Frances. 

Their relationship devolves to the point that Frances hears through a third party that Sophie is moving to Japan with recent fiancé Patch (Patrick Heusinger), a finance douchebag who both girls previously made fun of as “the kind of guy who buys a black leather couch and is like, ‘I love it.’” Guys like Patch may be successful and grounded, but they aren’t “magical,” a word that Frances repeatedly uses and a feeling she constantly searches for. The movie slyly indicates that Patch is actually a good guy, but to Frances, he’s the Other. Not only is he the man stealing away her best friend; he also has his shit together. 

The intense focus on a realistic female friendship is welcome in an age of so many cinematic bromances. More often than not, female friends exist in movies primarily as a sound board for the romantic misadventures of our female lead, but Frances Ha is a movie that would easily ace the Bechdel Test.

This is all good stuff, but the film wouldn’t work without Gerwig’s exceptional lead performance. Frances is obnoxious and hopeless, the kind of character you just want to slap, and yet, in Gerwig’s hands, she is also charming, optimistic, and a woman to root for. I’m assuming the role isn’t a tremendous stretch for the actress, but that hardly takes away from the fact that this is a wonderfully immersive and fully-rounded performance. It’s easily my favorite by a female since Jessica Chastain blew the doors off in Zero Dark Thirty

Director/co-writer Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg) normally works with caustic and cynical characters, but he does well in this more whimsical territory. He pays homage to French cinema and the works of Woody Allen, sampling ideas, tones and stylistic flourishes, not to mention full on scenes.  A jogging sequence set to David Bowie’s Modern Love nods to Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sand (full confession: I haven't seen the movie; only the scene... on a blog... about this very topic), and a bit in which Frances tries to get a new roommate to play-fight with her is a direct descendant of the lobster interactions from Annie Hall.
There’s something impressive in the way that Baumbach and Gerwig create a narrative that is authentic and seemingly improvisational and yet still controlled enough to circle back and hit home so many of the film’s themes. Refreshingly, the film avoids the temptation to fix Frances by pairing her off with a love interest as so many other films have done. There is a potential beau in Benji (Michael Zegen), a hipster artist who affectionately deems Frances as “undateable,” but the film wisely leaves that thread dangling.

Instead, the climax offers us a resurgent Frances, one who lives on her own, has taken an olive branch from her studio owner to work in the office and has begun pursuing a new dream in choreography. It all feels earned, especially the moment we see her realize that although her relationship with Sophie is forever changed, it’s still somehow the relationship she was longing for.

At one point in the film, Frances proclaims “I’m sorry. I’m not a real person yet.” It’s played for a joke, but it’s also a defining line for the character. The kicker at the end of the film plays off this comment in a way that is both funny and thematically potent. I won’t spoil the joke here, but I will say it explains the title while offering the suggestion that settling into a somewhat grounded reality is not only a possible outcome, but a magical one as well. A