This review was originally published on September 8, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
In nature, (or at least nature documentaries) it's just a few minutes of undercranked footage for a moth to wrap itself in chrysalis and emerge a butterfly. In humans, and in real life, the transformation into maturity takes a little longer, is a lot more difficult to pinpoint, and oftentimes hits some bumps.
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's collaborative effort "Frances Ha" is hardly the first film to tackle this topic. Hardly the first this year. Hardly the first this year set in New York. But it's a masterpiece at every level at execution. The writing crackles, the performances are true, the scenes sculpted down to their essence and stitched together with elegance and verve. Some are comparing it to the remarkable HBO series "Girls," but a more accurate comparison would be "Ghost World" meets the early work of Francois Truffaut. But as august as these namedrops are, they're still disrespectful to "Frances Ha." It's good enough to be its own thing.
Shot in gorgeous black and white and breathlessly paced, "Frances Ha" is about a gangly woman train-wrecking her way through her late 20s, perennially "undate-able," unfocused and prone to mildly self-destructive behavior. Her decisions cause the kinds of bruises that don't leave marks. She's broke and has no prospects, but we in the audience know that she'll be all right. Miraculously, "Frances Ha" is able to avoid condescension. We root for her, we don't tsk at her or roll our eyes at her clueless heritage of privilege.
It is a character, indeed a film, of contradictions. She's a klutz, but also a dancer. She's surrounded by mess and clutter, yet yearns to be a choreographer. It's not a far-fetched dream, she's actually capable of these goals - she just needs to get her act together a little bit.
It's funny, because there aren't too many major big plot turns in the film. Friendships fizzle, new roommates found, dinner parties attended. From a macro point of view it all seems so trivial, but it's this minutiae that informs our daily lives, that occupies our time before we can find out what we really want to do with ourselves. The film's propulsive rush, fueled by uncertainty and melancholy, gives Gerwig's nervous baby steps out of extended adolescence an edge-of-your-seat quality.
To be fair, the film is so engaging because it's so damn funny. Baumbach and Gerwig's co-authored script is lucky enough to be populated with people who place a premium on being quotable, so les bon mots are frequent and furious. It's Nick and Nora Charles removed from the Waldorf-Astoria and placed in a Brooklyn walkup. If you cross your arms at this film and say, "fmmf, people don't really talk like THAT," well, sorry, you just need to find cooler friends.
"Frances Ha," while ostensibly about Gerwig's Frances, is just as much about her oftentimes offscreen best friend Sophie (Mickey Sutton) and their changing relationship. Much of what makes this film so refreshing is that this film isn't about "oh, will she NEVER find a man?" Sexuality is part of the film, sure, but it's not really top of the list.
In line with Frances' discovery, part what's so sharp is the film's slow revelation of itself. It isn't abundantly clear what it is Frances wants or what the movie should ultimately be about until it is actually happening. There's a "Chekov's Gun" moment at the end that took me so off-guard, but I now realize, in retrospect, a neon sign saying THIS IS WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT wouldn't have made it any more clear.
I love her dearly, but Greta Gerwig isn't actually all that versatile of an actor. Earlier this year, she played the same role in the mirror universe "Frances Ha," the abysmal "Lola Versus." (I loved "Damsels in Distress," but that was so cartoonishly stylized it was more corpsing than acting.) "Frances Ha," pivoting endlessly between awkward, embarrassing, frustrating and wonderful, is the part she was born to play. That she co-wrote the film leaves me more excited to see what other stories she - with or without Baumbach - has in her next.
SCORE: 9.0 / 10