Friendship can be just as intimate and consuming as a romance. Any relationship, no matter the foundation, waxes and wanes over time, but friendship in particular can be a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately deal: what use is a friend if they don’t amuse or validate you in some fashion? “Frances Ha,” on the surface a broad portrait of its meandering title character, charts a path to understanding and maturation through the various friends and acquaintances that wander in and out of her life. It’s a coming-of-age story that’s less about the bumps along the way than the people you bump into.
Frances (Greta Gerwig) is content leading her pseudo-Bohemian New York life, sharing an apartment with her best friend from college and diligently floundering in the lower rungs of a modern dance company. But when Sophie (Mickey Sumner) ditches her for “[her] favorite street in Tribeca,” Frances is sent out on an uncertain couch-surfing odyssey. The breakup with Sophie suddenly puts every decision under the microscope, thrusting Frances into that precarious financial world of semi-employed white twenty-somethings, where an $80 tax rebate is cause for a celebratory date, rather than increased savings. It’s not that Frances is irresponsible: she’s just so directionless that nothing in particular seems a “responsible” choice.
So, sleeping on the couch of brand-new friends Lev (Adam Driver, of “Girls”) and Benji (Michael Zegen)? Sure. Quitting her company rather than take a solid secretarial job? Well, it does seem early yet to give up on her dreams. An impromptu two-day visit to Paris? Carpe diem, I suppose.
If this were one of Noah Baumbach’s earlier films, this aimless spiral might have nastier or at least more scathingly ironic consequences. However, something seems to have shifted between the Baumbach of “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” and the Baumbach of “Frances Ha:” no matter how desperate, dire or even downright unpleasant as Frances’ situation gets, there’s an unsinkable optimism to her that buoys the whole film. This is character, like other Baumbach protagonists, that could easily drag the whole audience down into her personal miasma, but instead of spreading noxious fumes, Frances seems to irradiate an entirely different kind of sympathetic awkwardness. It’s not that she needs to fix herself to fit into the world, she just has to find the right niche.
That sort of pleasant turnaround in Baumbach’s work started with “Greenberg,” so one has to wonder just how much of it is the influence of Gerwig, whose dazed charm seemed to first catch the director’s eye (on and off the screen) in that film. In addition to playing the main role, Gerwig also co-wrote the screenplay, and there’s none of the deep-rooted bitterness here that haunted Baumbach’s solo work. But neither is it slight, despite the far greater emphasis on wit and humor. It’s clear that the writing couple must have been impressed with “Girls:” the tone and social milieu of “Frances Ha” is much the same as Lena Dunham’s HBO show, only without Dunham’s predilection towards emotional and sexual self-deprecation. In fact, there isn’t really much sex at all in Baumbach’s film, which seems a little unusual given, again, all the young white twenty-somethings runnings around; but the notion that Frances is just too wrapped up in her day-to-day existence to literally give a fuck is certainly believable (though her obliviousness to Benji’s obvious adoration is frustrating in a cute-sitcom sort of way).
Really, though, it’s her friendship with Sophie that clearly drives away Frances’ romantic prospects, and it’s this relationship that best demonstrates how “Frances Ha” separates itself from “Girls.” While Dunham’s characters are ultimately too self-obsessed to make any kind of meaningful effort at connecting with other people, Frances can’t be knocked for a lack of trying. Often, indeed, she’s trying too hard, as in a painful dinner party scene where no number of foot-in-mouth comments is apparently too many. But the way Frances and Sophie gravitate towards each other, crash, burn, then pull back together in particular is a tremendously authentic take on relationship drama that trumps Dunham’s sometimes contrived turns.
Baumbach and Gerwig aren’t afraid to let Frances reach some very real lows – a stint where our bubbly protagonist returns to Vassar as an RA is especially pitiful – but they strike a very rare and difficult balance with these cringeworthy moments, inserting just enough pluck and comedy to keep things hopeful. And when the ending takes a decidedly optimistic turn, it feels more organic than a tacked-on Hollywood finale, thanks to Gerwig’s indomitable spirit and inexplicable (perhaps irrational) emotional resilience. Her performance is a gem – the kind that might be considered too comedic to be taken seriously, but as in “Greenberg,” she’s really just creating a character that you can fall in love with, flaws and all. And to make sure that the criticism isn’t all laid at Frances’ feet, Baumbach is sure to paint the more “put-together” people around her in an equally satirical light: Benji, for instance, lives off his parents’ wealth while working on a spec script for “Gremlins 3,” while the other participants in that disastrous dinner party come off as such self-important bourgeoisie that Frances’ clumsy comments come off as a dose of Buñuel-esque relief.
Probably the only other comparison you could draw between “Frances Ha” and “The Exterminating Angel” is to note Baumbach’s use of black-and-white photography. Considering the director is a well-established indie icon, this decision must’ve been creative rather than financial, but it works wonders with the stripped-down material: the stark cinematography, beautiful though it is, leaves the focus strictly on the unique cast of characters and the talented ensemble. As Frances barrels into and out of their lives, they each leave such a vivid mark that one doesn’t wish for much else anyway. Sometimes friendship is all we have.
Now playing in indie theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars