TIFF 2012 Review: Frances Ha

I'm Yours

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?

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Sean Kelly
Guest

This is currently my favourite film of the festival so far. Of course, I’ve only seen 5/25.

Jandy Hardesty
Guest

I disliked Greenberg, as you may remember (and also Margot at the Wedding), but Baumbach has enough goodwill left over from Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale with me that I’m still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and from your review, it sounds like Frances Ha will be much more up my alley than the Baumbach films I don’t care for. French New Wave meets Manhattan? With Gerwig leading the way? Hell yes. Can’t wait to get the opportunity to check it out.

rot
Guest

Jandy you will LOVE this film. You just want to hug Frances, something I don’t think anyone much feels for Roger Greenberg. Also the second it was over I just wanted to be able to rewatch it again.

Chris
Guest

Greenberg was great so are his other films.

ajames1
Guest

I hate pretty much everything about this movie. If you love Greta Gerwig in this movie you’re probably also a big fan of Alyson Hannigan.

Mike_Rot
Guest

ajames1 I would love to know what you hate about Frances.  That she is awkward?  Were you ever young once, Andrew?  This is observational comedy, the stuff we want to edit out in our minds thinking we are all suave and were born that way when in reality we are all clumsy, inelegant buffoons particularly in are teens and early twenties, at the crossroads of trying to be a ‘real person’.  You should feel some kind of empathy for Frances, fending at a dinner scene to belong, you laugh because it is honest, but you like her because she is not mean-spirited, she wants to be good, but hasn’t learned how to get along in the world.  Her speech about wanting to find that one person, that is about as pure and honest a bit of dialogue and performance as I have seen in some time… and that is not hipster, that is not jaded, it’s genuine, and the crux of the movie is about growing to a point where you can be that person who deserves that happiness.  The world maybe crass and hipster around her, but that is the point, IT IS.  The young are drowning in irony, Frances is stuck in a loop with her male roommate saying the same catch-phrases because she doesn’t know how to say something honestly.  She is a good person, the world is fucked.  And she pushes past her sense of ownership over her friendship, and works on herself, and in the process becomes a person worthy of love.  
Like I wrote below, if you don’t want to hug Frances by the end of this… Andrew… you need to be studied.

Mike_Rot
Guest

Can we embed youtube in here now?  This is an attempt.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsUfwdTDLRo

KurtHalfyard
Guest

Mike_Rot Apparently not, and the comment engine behind the scenes will not let me embed either…   🙁

ajames1
Guest

Mike_Rot You’re supposed to be able to.  Not sure what the problem is here – I’ll fix it.

BobTurnbull
Guest

Mike_Rot ajames1 It’s funny…I just watched this myself and I’m a bit conflicted about it. I almost totally agree with everything rot just said above and believe that’s what makes this easily Baumbach best work. The montage in Sacramento was quite wonderful and the dinner scene that followed (with Rachel) was exceptionally well done in bringing awkward to new heights. It was painful to watch actually (not overly funny for me), which made it both kinda brilliant and also not enjoyable.
That’s part of the reason I’m conflicted…There are numerous sections to the movie that I simply didn’t enjoy. Some were very well done and were intentionally awkward/painful and some just felt awkward (and slightly forced). Frances was endearing at times (and I do have to say I very much loved the ending of the film), but dammit if she also didn’t frustrate the crap out of me…Again, that’s partially the point and props for getting that right, but it wasn’t always a fun time. The other characters also sometimes drifted between being recognizably annoying and forced annoying.
And then the film can turn around and hit a scene spot on.
I have to let it sit for a bit…

ajames1
Guest

Mike_Rot ajames1 I’m not surprised I don’t like this movie.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I hate pretty much everything Baumbach does except for Squid/Whale which is outstanding.  I’m almost scared to back and watch K&S for fear that I won’t like as much as I thought I did when I was in college and could pretend to be the hip guy who saw this indie comedy no one has ever heard of.  That’s how I feel about Frances Ha.  It’s a movie that makes me feel like I’m 22 and proud of myself for being artful for watching an obscure black and white comedy about other people that I wish I could be like.  And that pisses me off.
I almost turned off the movie after about 6 minutes due to the trite dialogue and first world “oh woe is me” attitude of a bunch of web designers and artists and dancers and script writers in New York City just trying to sleep with people and get a cool apartment.  I mean gimmie a break.  All the “undateable” nonsense and the “should I text him back?” and all that garbage is just not interesting to me anymore?  Is it believable?  Maybe, but I don’t hang out with 18 year-old anymore (unfortunately :).
So the problem is not that she’s awkward and is trying to fit in.  It’s that she already does fit in and just doesn’t realize it – she just an aggravating and kind of annoying character.  
Also, everything that comes out of her mouth and everyone around her is so clearly written.  I think the main problem is in the performances and the direction – nothing feels genuine. I suppose a lot of Woody Allen’s stuff is that way too but at least he’s funny.  Nothing in Frances Ha did I find very funny (other than “starboard anal” – that made me chuckle).
At LetterBoxd I compared it to Clerks because I feel like it’s the same sort of acting – everyone is just waiting for their turn to speak and say their next line as fast as possible.
Yeah she’s awkward – but she’s so awkward in a Joss Whedon kind of way – again, I feel like I’m 19 again watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The dinner scene was certainly uncomfortable – but partly it was frustrating because in that scene she’s a completely different character than the rest of the movie.
Kurt Halfyard will love this movie.

Mike_Rot
Guest

It ought to be hitting the same nerve that David Brent’s observational comedy did in the Office and the dramatic versimilitude of Cassavettes, uncomfortable is par for the course, but the pleasure is derived from recognizing your own life experiences in the process. To me this is on par with Joe Swanberg’s mumblecore film Nights and Weekends (also co-written and acted by Greta). It is not meant to be something you can watch as self-contained genre tropes… By design you are supposed to be agitated and feel like you are intruding in something private (Girls is pushing this much farther than Frances with a protagonist that gets more and more unlikeable). Is it fun? I guess aesthetic preference, some people find it fun to be psychologically tortured by horror films. I find that less fun, being scared has less resonance to me than being stirred by the unrehearsed humanity on display in mumblecore films.

Mike_Rot
Guest

To me Frances Ha is Baumbach’s closest film to his early classic Kicking & Screaming. Just Kicking & Screaming for the next generation. It’s funny and sad and sweet. I find the dinner scene hilarious and at the same time cringeworthy, again, like a David Brent sketch. And the clip I tried to embed above is just so damn pure, messy and pure and funny (mid-sentiment they cut to the people on te couch and they are stone-face drunk). Also probably doesn’t bear mentioning but that married couple in the dinner scene aret he two leads of Kicking & Screaming, further cementing the next gen spirit of this.

BobTurnbull
Guest

Mike_Rot Fair points Mike…Part of the reason (I think) that I didn’t latch on to Frances Ha is that I don’t recognize or know these characters. My 20s were vastly different (no better or worse, just different), so I don’t share an easy rapport with these folks on screen. That’s not bad of course – imagine only watching movies with people you recognized – but it seemed more important for this film.
As I said, I give credit for the movie certainly hitting my discomfort zone. I still feel that part of it is too forced and that some of that awkwardness feels poorly brought to life. Cassavetes feels completely honest and consistent through and through (at least what I’ve seen so far by him).
Haven’t caught up with Nights and Weekends yet, but plan to. However, my first experience with Gerwig was not a good one – I REALLY disliked every inch of Hannah Takes The Stairs and particularly couldn’t stand her character. We’re past that now though…B-)

Mike_Rot
Guest

I love Hannah Takes the Stairs not as a movie but as performance art, just watching a group of actors improvise or appear to improvise a story while sweating profusely in a hot summer Chicago apartment. Nights and Weekends is far more a coherent, controlled movie… a slight movie, but a movie. I loooove Joe Swanberg.

Jandy Hardesty
Guest

I just watched this, and you were right, Rot, it left me with all sorts of warm fuzzies. I’d forgotten the fact that you compared it to Manhattan and the New Wave, but you’re totally right – the New York part felt like Allen and the little Paris section felt like Truffaut, with the merest hint of Godard.

Mike_Rot
Guest

Curious how everyone is seeing this. If someone bought the blu-ray and wants to sell, I’m a buyer!

Jandy Hardesty
Guest

It just came on Netflix Instant recently, that may be why the sudden flurry of watching.

ajames1
Guest

Mike_Rot It’s also a Criterion Blu available now.

ajames1
Guest

Mike_Rot You’re supposed to just be able to enter in the YouTube URL and it will automatically embed the video.  Not sure why this isn’t working.  Will persist to make it happen!

LFJeremy
Guest
ajames1
Guest

Mike_Rot KurtHalfyard You CAN embed videos and it seems to be working fine.  All you have to do is drop in the URL for the video.  Just make sure it isn’t  the short code (e.g.  youtu.be).  Make sure it is youtube.com and it will work!