Long a darling of the New York indie scene, Noah Baumbach came to filmmaking with a solid pedigree: His father is a film theorist and his mother was a movie critic at the Village Voice (where I've contributed myself).
But after his first hit comedy, Kicking and Screaming, the writer-director developed a habit not uncommon among novice filmmakers: He mistook clever disdain for insight. The Squid and the Whale, a thinly veiled takedown of his own parents, reeked of mean spirits marinated in ironic detachment, and the murky Margot at the Wedding was close to unwatchable on several fronts.
Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller as a bitter New Yorker who moves to Los Angeles and learns how to be a decent person rather than a sulky failed star, brought out a more merciful spirit in Baumbach — in large measure because of Greta Gerwig's vivacious turn as a gawky, eternally optimistic aspiring singer who awakens the title character to the possibilities of everyday devotion.
Gerwig, the smart blond bombshell who found her way from mumblecore into the indie mainstream via Woody Allen's To Rome With Love and Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, has been good for Baumbach. After Greenberg, the two became partners in life and work; now, together, they've written a new character, building on the dreamer Gerwig played in Greenberg. They moved her back to Manhattan, and made Frances Ha Baumbach's best film yet.
Gerwig plays Frances, an aspiring modern dancer whom we meet clinging for dear life to an apprenticeship with a choreographer who drops broad hints that Frances has no future with her company. She breaks up with her boyfriend millennial-style — "Sorry!" "Me too!" — and declares herself happy to continue living with her best friend, Sophie (a very good Mickey Sumner), "like an old lesbian couple that doesn't have sex anymore."
When the more goal-oriented Sophie moves on with life and love, Frances is left bereft of much more than the easy rapport with her friend that she assumed would go on forever. She reacts, mostly not well. Life blares change at her, but Frances turns deaf as a post.
This is Girls territory, but Baumbach's Truffaut-inflected New York, shot in black and white with a groovy score featuring Georges Delerue (veteran composer of the French New Wave) is a more elegant if less upscale place in which to have your fantasies demolished.
The movie's episodic, loosely associative rhythms mirror Frances' strenuous efforts to stem the tide and keep her dream intact. A ball of impulses, she revs into a tornado of motion, rushing off to her loving parents (played by Gerwig's own parental units) in Sacramento, to an empty apartment in Paris, to a college reunion in Poughkeepsie, to unsavory sublets in New York — anything to avoid moving forward with her life rather than dancing around it.
As in Greenberg, Gerwig uses her beguilingly klutzy physicality to signal the awkwardness of a perennial square peg. Yet Frances is far from pathetic. As ingenues go, she's actually fairly likable, an unquenchable flame burning in a world that disappoints her at best and threatens to crush her at worst. There's a touch of Gracie Allen in Frances, an indomitable blithe spirit who lives happily within a bubble-world of her own construction.
Don't mistake Frances Ha for an inspirational, how-I-found-maturity movie in any simple sense. Frances has no George Burns, no trust fund, no unearned movie-luck to protect her. She does find something to do, but whether you think she's been robbed, or rescued from the jail of unattainable ambition, may be an existential question.
Life can be rough, and for most of us it can take half a lifetime to acquire the astonishingly simple insight that it's worth being cheerful just because — or just despite. Running through the streets of New York for the sheer hell of it, Frances has the gift of joy to her very marrow. As for Greta Gerwig, I get the feeling she's just gearing up. (Recommended)