TIFF '12: Baumbach's 'Frances Ha' Proves We're All A Little Unfinished

Sep 9, 2012

Frances Ha, from director Noah Baumbach, will likely be a polarizing movie. If you need to understand why, I'll just tell you that it's in black and white and it opens with Frances, played by Baumbach's co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig, and her best friend Sophie frolicking. Frolicking how? Well, Frances is tap dancing and Sophie is playing a miniature banjo. If this is the part where you say, "Heaven forfend I should spend five minutes with such people," then this movie will probably lose you in the first five minutes.

Full disclosure: I am normally exactly that way myself. I have limited patience for the attitude that people talking about nothing is cool and subversive, or that obnoxious people are enthralling, or that people from New York are more interesting than other people. Fatigue can pretty quickly set in as Frances and Sophie snuggle up to each other like teenagers and not as if they're already 27 years old, focused entirely on the minutiae of their lives.

What helped Frances grow on me as both a character and a movie was Gerwig's vexing — and yes, sometimes intentionally irritating — performance as a young woman who's so frenetically trying to fit in that she can't, who's so desperately trying to grab onto something that she slips off every time. She's both concerned that she's getting old and concerned that everyone has outgrown her as they move on to marriage and babies and careers and better apartments while she, on the other hand, still prioritizes her roommate arrangement with Sophie over her relationship with her boyfriend.

The film is organized according to a series of addresses, different places where Frances looks for home — with Sophie, with her parents, with a couple of new roommates, or even in another country. There's not a single central plot, exactly, and the only constant is Frances herself: her confusion, her weird sense of humor, and her restless sense that she belongs to nothing and nobody.

"Quirky" is a word that's sadly been stolen from real weirdos by eccentricity dilettantes, so it's a relief that Frances is well and truly a strange bird, blessed with a remarkable ability to say something awkward in almost any situation. The film is funny and likable, despite the trappings of self-conscious New York navel-gazing.

Frances Ha takes some time to get going, or perhaps it just took some time to get me going along with it. If you don't look carefully at Frances, you might think she's just cutesy, when in fact, she's terrified. And terrified, of course, is much more interesting.

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