Director: Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Kicking and Screaming)
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig
Producers: Mallary Davenport, Avi Federgreen, Jennifer Jonas
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Grace Gummer, Adam Driver
Noah Baumbach has a penchant for pissing people off with his movies. The one time critical darling has, in recent years, drawn resistance from a sizable group of vocal detractors. His characters are loathsome they say, he writes with an elitist New York intellectual smugness, another. A friend described watching Greenberg as like having the middle finger perpetually shoved in his face. So goes the backlash. Then last week, surprisingly, early word out of the Telluride film festival for his latest feature, Frances Ha, was unanimously positive. More than positive, ecstatic! It even made Greta Gerwig cry. Perhaps the desire to see a return to the greatness widely acknowledged in The Squid and the Whale had pent up, and in the ensuing years that unrequited desire has been stoking the flames of backlash until now. The news heralded from Telluride and now, Toronto, is that Baumbach is Back!
To which I say he never left.
Still, Frances Ha does feel like an olive branch of sorts, perhaps the residual effect of Greta Gerwig co-writing and playing the lead, a woman whose charms can’t help but make one smile. In tone and theme it is very much a return to the goofier hanging out pleasures of his earliest success, Kicking and Screaming. At the grossly old age of 27, Frances (Greta Gerwig) is still struggling to be a ‘real person’ and, in her post-grad malaise, drifts apartment to apartment, part-time job to part-time job, at odds with her ambitions. Most worrisome of all, is her distancing from long-time BFF, Sophie, an adjustment she is clearly not ready for. The resulting film is probably the most pleasurable to watch of Baumbach’s work, very funny and unusually sweet. Without a Roger Greenberg to agitate, the hesitant audiences relax, and while there are still the odd jab or two to decorum, you feel safe having Frances as your protagonist, she is harmless, “undateable” and a stand in for a lot of late twentysomethings unsure of their place in the world.
Frances Ha is a stylistic departure for the filmmaker, playing like French New Wave meets Woody Allen’s Manhatten. In stunning black and white with just a hint of guerrila-filmmaking mumblecore, Frances Ha feels fresh, spontaneous, a master filmmaker surrendering to impulse, the experiment, a thrilling success. Greta Gerwig is like Baumbach’s Jean-Pierre Léaud, an actor whether trying or not seems entirely effortless, lived-in, believable. She is Frances in the same way she was Florence in Greenberg: she has the market for lovable misfit characters cornered.
For me, watching a Baumbach film is like experiencing a wave of deja-vu, of having lived the scenarios or misspoke in just the same way. There is a dinner scene in particular where Frances has to fend for herself among a table full of mostly strangers and the small talk diaharea that ensues is a marvel of observation. The dialogue is punchy and often times hilarious but drawn from life, the life we wish to edit out but that is there nonetheless. Ricky Gervais may have rejuvenated a love of squirming observational comedy but Baumbach was the master of it long before, and in Frances Ha he and Gerwig make it look easy.
Greenberg remains Baumbach’s masterpiece (yeah, I know, spare me), but Frances Ha is a close second. Both feel like documents of my life, raw and personal and honest. They transcend any purely cinematic interest for me, tapping the sweet spot of why I bother watching films at all: to see my small part of the world reflected. They make me involved, culpable, a participant. Frances trepidation and desires becomes my own, the symbiosis is a rush unlike any other. The smile never left my face, what more is there than this kind of bliss?