Frances Ha sparkles

This film review of “Frances Ha” appeared in The Australian Jewish News in a slightly different form on 16 August 2013, in a review entitled “Elusive search for stardom”.

Directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig

It is one of the most original and delightful films of the year.  It sits within the current popular “moment” as well as bows to film history.  It is autobiographical, of a sort, and shot in black and white.  It arises from a deep creative collaboration between a Jewish male film director and his non-Jewish girlfriend.  The film is “Frances Ha”.

The Jewish director is not Woody Allen, but Noah Baumbach, who comes as close as anyone can to being the true inheritor of Allen’s mantle of New York Jewish comedic angst.  The parallels with Allen are important:  although separated in age by 34 years, both grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Midwood High School.

Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” star, muse and co-creator is Greta Gerwig.  They met on the set of “Greenberg”, an edgy comedy written and directed by Baumbach and starring Ben Stiller in the title role, reportedly based on characters from Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.  The Jewish literary tradition is in Baumbach’s genes:  his father Jonathan is a novelist and film critic.  Gerwig, best-known for her original “mumblecore” film roles, recently starred in “Arthur” and has had her own brush with Woody Allen, appearing as “Sally” in “To Rome with Love”.

Gerwig brings an assured sense to Frances’ ungainly physical style; there are almost no moments when she is not on screen, and the performance delightful.  This actor has truly “arrived”.  Most of Frances’ autobiography is Gerwig’s.  Frances is a wanna-be dancer who lurches from one mini-personal disaster to another.  She works on the fringes of a professional dance company as an apprentice who never quite makes it, and slowly but surely runs out of money, unlike her unstressed “trust fund”-supported friends.  “The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich”, Frances wisely observes.  She even falls out with her room-mate and best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  Her one attempt at competing in this world of money and privilege – an impulsive weekend spent in a luxury flat in Paris – is disastrous, as she sleeps most of the time and cannot connect with her only friends there.

Eventually Frances can no longer pay rent, and resorts to visiting her parents at “home” in Sacramento, California (Gerwig actually grew up there).  These touching scenes are all the more poignant because Gerwig’s actual parents – Gordon and Christine Gerwig – play her movie parents.  One of Frances’ last residences is a dormitory at Vassar College (which Baumbach attended), where she works a summer job serving food at alumni reunions.

“Frances Ha” has de facto “chapter” headings – simple white font on black backgrounds, Woody Allen-style, each identifying one of France’s residences. It’s not surprising that “Time” magazine calls “Frances Ha” a “Millennial ‘Annie Hall’”.  But it does have a complex set of antecedents:  Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” (romantic New York also shot in black and white), the “Gen Y” television series “Girls” (the film includes Adam Driver from that series, here as “Lev Shapiro”) and splashed with a touch of “Greenberg”.  If you think other actors look familiar, you are right:  Grace Gummer – one of Meryl Streep’s daughters and like Streep, a Vassar graduate – also appears as Rachel, one of Frances’ friends.

As enjoyable as it is, “Frances Ha” is unlikely to have to same impact as “Annie Hall”.  Like Frances herself, the film’s story “arc” drifts.  It’s too “small” and too particular to a certain demographic – modern urban twentysomethings in life transition.  It also glides lightly over its Jewish roots.  In “Annie Hall” Woody Allen’s character complained about antisemites calling him “Jew” under their breath, and Diane Keaton’s character referred to him as “What Grammy Hall would call ‘a real Jew’”.  But “Frances Ha” exists in a more frictionless world.  Sure, you’re Jewish – excepting Frances, most of the main characters are.  But so what?  There’s no tension.

As for the film’s title “Frances Ha” – wait to the final scene for an explanation.

You can watch the film’s trailer here:

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