Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Frances Ha: the little movie that could

The "mumblecore" genre may have produced a handful of films that are rather insufferable, but it also gave us some genuine gifts. One of those gifts is actress Greta Gerwig, who once again effortlessly showcases her comedic and dramatic talents in Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha." "Frances Ha" is a fun little black-and-white 86-minute comedy and was also co-written by Gerwig. The film shows director Noah Baumbach completely shifting his style after a string a films, starting with "The Squid and the Whale," had a more melancholy touch with characters that were hard to like. Personally, I love "The Squid and the Whale," and quite enjoyed his last film "Greenberg." But, as he hinted with his '90s output and the work he did with Wes Anderson on "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Noah Baumbach definitely has a playful side. Luckily for us, Greta Gerwig has been able to help pull that side out of him for this film.

The film's plot may not sound very intriguing to some. It centers on a late-20s college grad living in various different NYC apts, trying to adjust her life after her long-time best friend and roommate decides to move in with her boyfriend. But, the secret to "Frances Ha" is the gleeful abandon in which it tells its story. Baumbach experiments with pacing and structure in ways he's never done before. The film is interspersed with French New Wave-style title cards, with some scenes lasting as little as a couple of seconds, and others playing out much longer. The film's music is a mix of your traditional old school film score coupled with pop music. This gives the film a bit of a throwback feel in two ways, as if John Hughes was trying to imitate Godard and Truffaut... if that makes any sense.

The film never takes itself too seriously, the characters are fun and likable, and its never bogged down by its more dramatic parts. Overall, everything feels very loose and the formal camera style allows us to get sucked into these characters' lives for a brief period of time. This comes into stark contrast of the typical hand-held style you normally see in films of this kind. Yes, most of these characters are hipster twentysomethings who borrow money from their parents so they can live comfortably in Manhattan. Thankfully, "Frances Ha" is always light and the characters are always funny. Supporting performances from Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen, and "Girls" star Adam Driver definitely help matters. They appear to have a lot of fun playing these characters who, thankfully, are very down-to-earth. They're people you actually would not mind hanging out with.

And obviously the presence of Noah Baumbach behind the camera helps too. While his sometime-colleague Wes Anderson keeps refining his style, Baumbach's career seems to be defined by his need to switch things up. "Frances Ha" finds him in rare form, delivering a comedy that feels faintly familiar yet unlike anything else you've seen in quite some time. It takes familiar elements (NYC twentysomethings) and mixes it up into something that actually feels fresh and inspired.

It seems Baumbach has given himself a much-needed boost in creativity, with Greta Gerwig being his new muse. They're already planning on collaborating two more times, having already finished shooting another film, and another film, "While We're Young," is supposed to start shooting later this year. I mentioned Wes Anderson before and it's interesting to compare the two. Anderson is in a rare league of directors, in my view, especially with his latest ("Moonrise Kingdom"). Anderson is unashamed, 100% confident in his style and when he has a good story to tell, he's unstoppable.

What makes Noah Baumbach interesting to me is the way he's willing to change. In some ways, his sensibilities match up with Wes Anderson (as proven by their collaborations), but at his best, Baumbach is the more relatable, more intimate filmmaker. His movies are character studies. He's less interested in production design and fancy camera work, and more interested in story and character. His last two films were a bit more difficult to swallow because the characters were much rougher around the edges and weren't very inviting. The camera peered into their lives and showcased the ugly side of human behavior. That doesn't always make for a fun watch.

So it comes as a welcome surprise how thoroughly enjoyable "Frances Ha" is. There are no real-world ramifications here, it doesn't necessarily have anything crucial to say. But it's a well-executed look into the life of a woman in her late-20s who is still trying to put her life together. By the end, Frances has pretty much gotten everything figured out and we're happy for her. The difference between this film, and other films like it, is that you actually want Frances to succeed because she's a sweet and likable person. She just has trouble fitting in, and hey, we've all been there. She's always fun to watch, and that's largely thanks to Greta Gerwig. She just has a certain charm to her and she's quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses working today.

Overall, "Frances Ha" is a fun detour. In the end, it may feel a little slight, but it's a highly enjoyable film that will be worth revisiting over and over again. The film never drags and it doesn't feel too short. It's just a very well-executed comedy by a revitalized filmmaker. I can't wait to see what he has up his sleeve next. See "Frances Ha" twice. Don't be surprised if David Bowie's "Modern Love" gets stuck in your head afterwards.

Grade: A-

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