Smiling face of a quarter-life crisis

Frances Ha (MA). Director: Noah Baumbach. Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen.  86 minutes

I saw Frances Ha on a cold, wet night, in a theatre situated in a discreet concrete warehouse beneath an overpass in South Melbourne. Despite the grim circumstances I left the theatre smiling, though initially unsure quite what to make of what I'd just watched. Two nights later, sitting in a different theatre to see a different film, I saw a trailer for the film and the smile instantly returned. This low-key, low-fi (black-and-white) gem is certainly easy to love.

That's thanks mainly to the character Frances herself, portrayed with warmth and conviction by Gerwig, who also shares a screenwriting credit with director Baumbach. Frances is the archetypal woman-child, late-20s going on 16, prone to impromptu dance routines through the streets of New York, and to play-fighting in the park with her long-time best friend Sophie (Sumner). Gerwig has fun with the character's goofs and gags but is also just soulful enough to win abiding affection for a character who may otherwise have simply been irritating.

When we meet Frances she is clinging to a casual tutoring gig with a dance company, and pining for a permanent (and increasingly unlikely) promotion to the main dance troupe. In an early scene she rejects an invitation to move in with her boyfriend out of loyalty to Sophie, with whom she shares a flat. This effectively ends the relationship, although in his stubborn sulkiness he is slow to grasp it. Frances is sad but like all the obstacles and mishaps life throws at her she tries to take it in her stride. Endless optimism can be wearying work though.

Soon, a betrayal of sorts. Frances and Sophie are intimate almost to co-dependence; a celibate lesbian couple, they joke. But Sophie's career is on the uptick, and she's ready to move on to a trendier neighbourhood, leaving the all-but penniless Frances in her wake. With a new circle of friends and, before long, a new fiancé, Sophie seems to be quickly outgrowing Frances. This parting of the ways throws Frances into disarray. With her bank account drying up and time running out on her dancing dream, she, too, must find new friends and paths.

This is far from some maudlin or romanticised paean to the archetypal Struggling Artist living in New York, even though it shares some of that pedigree. Frances' dejection is palpable, but her determination always to find the silver lining is inspiring. A trip home for Christmas (shown mostly as a montage) reveals a loving, supportive family background, not a clichéd wreck of dysfunction and broken relationships, or of overbearing or neglectful parents. Frances' chosen life in New York is one of wide-eyed wonder, rather than the cynical severing of roots.

Frances tries to maintain the wonder, against the odds. She makes new friends — notably, exchanging affectionate insults with new housemate Benji (Zegen) — but is frustrated by the lack of easy intimacy she had come to share with Sophie. Her attempts to force it are at times hilarious, such as her efforts to bodily engage a nonplussed colleague in a play-fight. Others are simply sad; during an impromptu (and fiscally unwise) trip to Paris, she tries to contact another acquaintance she knows to be there, and receives no response to repeated cheerful messages.

Of course, you can't synthesise the intimacy born from lifelong friendship; such friendships might change, even painfully so, but that doesn't necessarily mean they end. Meanwhile, new friendships arrive, not worse than, but different from, the old one. In the same way, if old dreams falter, new dreams replace them, and can be equally fulfilling. These kinds of lessons are part and parcel of growing up, which, ultimately, is the path Frances is on.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach, New York, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen



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