Movie Review

'Frances Ha,' Stumbling Through Life

A candid and subtle exploration of a 27-year-old woman who hasn't made much of her life yet - and whether it's at all important.

'Frances Ha,' directed by Noah Baumbach; written by Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig; with Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Patrick Heusinger, Michael Zegen

Twice in the past two weeks, I have used the word "portrait" to describe new movies Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue Is the Warmest Color" and Johnathan Gurfinkel's "S#x Acts" and in both cases, the portraits were of young women.

Now a third movie comes along and, gives us another portrait of a woman, though in a very different style; whether or not she is young is a question the film itself raises. The movie is "Frances Ha," directed by Noah Baumbach based on a screenplay he co-wrote with the film's star, Greta Gerwig.

Frances, the heroine of Baumbach and Gerwig's movie, is a 27-year-old college graduate. At some point she is told that 27 is old, and "Frances Ha" indeed asks whether or not she really still has her whole life in front of her. What gives this question its bite is the fact that we no longer expect 27-year-old women to have fulfilled their "vocation" by settling down and raising families; on the contrary, even. But we do expect some measure of stability from them, and "Frances Ha" as a whole presents to us the utter lack of stability that defines every aspect of its heroine's life.

Frances, who wants to be a dancer, works as an apprentice with a small dance company, where she may not have much of a future. Throughout the film, we are not quite sure what to think of her dream: it seems as doubtful as her chances of professional advancement at her current job. But something about Frances's occasionally awkward character suggests that if this is what she wants, she may know something that we don't.

At one point in the film, she is asked to demonstrate a dance step at a social gathering and does so with such evident embarrassment that it's hard for us to judge whether her ambitions are viable or not.

Early in the movie, Frances breaks up with her boyfriend, who wanted her to move in with him. Not only is she reluctant to commit to him, but she does not want to part with the most significant person in her life, her college friend and current roommate Sophie (Micky Sumner.) Serious Sophie makes a better living than Frances working at a publishing house; as long as she is around, Frances has someone to complete her and to make her problems more manageable.

"Frances Ha" subtly explores the reasons why Frances feels such a strong connection to Sophie; Sophie, however, is not as attached to Frances, and she begins to pull away when she meets a young businessman, Patch (Patrick Heusinger.) Although she does not seem to be that much in love with him, when he is transferred to Japan and asks her to come along, she agrees. Frances remains behind on her own, and most of the movie follows her as she wanders through New York from apartment to apartment, while also trying to fill the emotional void that Sophie has left behind.

What I have described so far might make "Frances Ha" sound like a melancholy work about the anguish of a 27-year-old woman - and I haven't even mentioned the fact that the movie is in black and white. But the opposite is actually true, and all thanks to the heroine's winning personality. Frances may live in something of a daze, making every possible mistake along the way, but her candid, direct manner suggests to us that, 27 or not, she will hang in there ("survive" seems a bit of an overstatement in the context of this deliberately minor, charming picture.)

In Frances the meaning of the "Ha" attached to her name in the title is not revealed until the delightful final shot Baumbach and Gerwig give us a diverse female portrait, a human puzzle whose parts all fit together.

Although set mostly in different parts of New York, "Frances Ha" also briefly ventures to the Sacramento home of the heroine's parents (played by the real-life parents of Greta Gerwig, a Sacramento native) and also includes an impulsive weekend trip to Paris. Although the visit does show us the Eiffel Tower and other Paris landmarks, I can't remember another American film that portrayed Paris in this way. Any of us who have ever gone abroad and felt lonely and isolated to the point of wondering why we were even there will be able to identify with the emotions that these scenes so accurately capture.

The visit to Paris is important not only for the plot. Like the black-and-white cinematography, it emphasizes the influence of the French New Wave and Baumbach's attempt to offer a contemporary New York version of it. Baumbach makes no effort to conceal this influence: the musical score features pieces by French composer Georges Delerue, who wrote the music for some of the early films of Francois Truffaut ("Jules and Jim," "Shoot the Pianist") and worked with Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and other filmmakers who created the cinematic moment on which "Frances Ha" draws.

As his previous movies have already demonstrated, Baumbach is a skillful director and an even better writer of dialogue. The lines he crafts are unique in style and suit the characters who speak them perfectly. Pretension is one of the themes of Baumbach's work, and it often manifests itself in dialogue. In his 2005 "The Squid and the Whale," for example, a teenage hero tries to impress the girl he loves by calling "The Trial" a very Kafkaesque novel, prompting her to respond that it was written by Kafka. "Frances Ha" is full of little glimmers of wit, such as when Sophie visits an apartment and declares it to be self-aware.

Part of the success of "Frances Ha" is due to Greta Gerwig's portrayal of Frances. Despite an occasional lapse into mannerisms that brings to mind actors in Woody Allen movies (Gerwig indeed appeared in Allen's "To Rome with Love"), her performance is precise, and some kind of inner light shines through her occasionally clumsy physical presence. Gerwig and Baumbach worked together previously on the 2010 "Greenberg," and she will also be the star of his as-yet-unnamed next film, scheduled for release in 2014.