Friday, May 31, 2013

FRANCES HA Is Woody Allen for Gen Y


- The new film from writer/directory Noah Baumbach, FRANCES HA mixes Woody Allen-esque slice-of-life neuroses-filled character study with a bit of modern-day rock n' roll. It's a beautifully-shot, often-times hilarious portrayal of late twenty-something life in the city, and it gets at some stark truths that any member of Gen Y can probably relate to, at least a little. It also features a winning performance from indie queen Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the film with Baumbach) as the title character. Gerwig is one of the most fascinating actresses out there - a wildly expressive, boundlessly quirky young woman who is not quite like anyone else making movies these days. Frances Ha is a total showpiece for Gerwig's unique talents and sensibility, and while some may not be onboard the bandwagon, I count myself a fan, and think she's never been better than here.

The movie tells the story of Frances, a 27-year-old aspiring dancer, living in New York City, trying to follow her dreams. Frances - a free spirit and a would-be intellectual, is trying to hold on to her dance dream while coming to terms with the reality that she's getting older, can't pay the bills, and, as one of her friends bluntly puts it, doesn't have her $#%& together. Like I said, many of us can, in some ways, probably relate. Throughout the course of the movie, we see how Frances' relationship with her best friend and roommate, Sophie, evolves. Sophie - the more practical and determined-to-grow-up of the two - tries to climb the social ladder and find a guy who will support her and give her the more glamorous, globe-trotting lifestyle she thinks she wants. Sophie's ambition creates a rift with Frances, even as Frances moves in with a bunch of trust-fund slackers who claim to be writers and artists, but who are really just living off their parents' money while working on sample SNL sketches and scripts for "Gremlins 3." (as someone who has lived in LA for eight years now, it's a type that is sadly all too familiar). But Frances, a type who stumbles her way from bad decision to bad decision, tries in her own way to keep up with the Joneses. She uses money she doesn't have to go on a hilariously poorly-planned trip to Paris, just to impress her friends and up her own feeling of self-worth. She refuses sensible jobs in order to stay on as a back-up for a dance troupe that clearly doesn't want her. She puts off being productive in favor of all-day movie marathons on the couch with her roomies.

On the surface, this might sound like the kind of self-involved character study that makes similar-ish efforts feel off-putting and lacking perspective (first season of HBO's Girls, anyone?). But Baumbach and Gerwig have a perspective and a self-awareness that's refreshing. In fact, I'd call it a major improvement from Baumbach's similar effort, Greenberg, which got a bit too caught up in its main character's own self-involvement, lacking awareness of his inherent unlikability. But what I like about FRANCES HA is that in many ways, the joke is on Frances. And because of that, we end up feeling sorry for her, empathizing with her, and rooting for her - because the movie is fully aware that she is a character who's essentially well-meaning, yet does a lot of dumb things. The movie freely admits that she doesn't have her $%&% together. At the same time, the movie perfectly captures the aimlessness and growing sense of dread that is the quarter-life crisis. Especially in this world of Facebook, blogs, etc., the pressure to do as well as, and to grow up at the same rate your peers, is uber-amplified. Whether real or perceived, it's hard to find your own way in a world in which everyone else seems to always be doing something really awesome at any given moment. Frances Ha does a great job of expressing that vibe of possibility mixed with dread. And Gerwig's Frances - the proverbial manic pixie dream girl, but clipped of her wings and brought down to earth - is the perfect vehicle to convey the movie's themes. In general, what separates this movie from other films and TV shows that look at young-adult-in-the-big-city life is that it is frank, and honest, about things like class, money, nepotism, etc.

Don't think that this is some ultra-serious downer of a movie though. It's very funny, with some wry observational humor, but also some broader/quirkier moments, like Frances having to make a desperate run across NYC to find an ATM while on a date.

It's also a very rock n' roll movie. Baumbach cuts some truly badass montages of city life and of Frances' journey, set to a grooving soundtrack of perfectly-chosen tunes. One song, Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner" struck me so much, with its disco-era guitar licks and driving beats, that I immediately downloaded it after seeing the film.

Gerwig is great, and so too is Mickey Sumner as Sophie. Sumner brings her own sort of quirkiness to the role, and there's something sad and frustrating as the character evolves into some sort of world-traveling yuppie. Adam Driver from Girls pops up as well, and he's quickly becoming a go-to ensemble player for slice-of-life urban comedy. His character here is much more normal than in Girls, but still really compelling, especially in his interactions with Gerwig as they awkwardly transition from blind date to odd-couple roommates.

At times, FRANCES HA does go a little overboard with its depiction of NYC privileged-hipster life. The movie ultimately gets the absurdity of some of its characters, but sometimes you do think "why doesn't Frances just ditch these rich kids, and hang out with some cooler and more genuine people?" In this way, the movie does sometimes feel trapped in a bit of a bubble. Moments of relatability are intermixed with moments of "ugh, first-world problems." Generally though, the film is sharply-observed and funny and elegantly made enough so as to cancel out such lapses. And even as I began to question Baumbach a bit as the movie went on, he won me over with a great third-act development that sees a distraught Frances return to her old college to work a temporary service gig. This part of the movie really works well, and gets Frances away from the insularity of Manhattan life. And that, in general, is a reason why the movie never becomes unlikable - it takes Frances on enough detours - to France, to her family's house in California, to her old college, that it puts her not-quite-starving-artist city life in perspective.

FRANCES HA was a really pleasant surprise for me. It felt like the modern evolution of movies like Woody Allen's Manhattan (this too is shot in black-and-white) - Woody Allen for the Facebook age. And Gerwig is the perfect inheritor of the Allen mantle. All at once a modern woman and a throwback, Gerwig is eminently watchable, and definitely one to watch.

My Grade: A-

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