Frozen in Real Time, by Josh Long
In Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Frances Ha, the eponymous heroine (played by Greta Gerwig) finds herself in an awkward in-between stage familiar to many Americans in their late twenties. She’s twenty-seven. In modern day New York City, she’s too old to be reliving her college years, but too young to have established any roots for herself. She’s looking for someone to hold on to, looking for a way to achieve her dreams, looking for a place to fit in. Yet in Frances’ world, she can’t even find a place to live. The only way she’s able to get her life together is to give up some of the control she holds so tightly; control over her dreams, her ideals, and most of all, her friends.
The entire story is seen through the prism of Frances’ friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner). In the first act, it fills her life. The two are inseparable, and talk about the big plans they’ll have together in their future. In the second, circumstances amiably divide the friends, but the social rift grows, and Frances looks for something or someone else to fill the Sophie-shaped hole in her life. At the same time, she struggles with moving forward in her dance career, and finds herself jealous of Sophie’s apparent success in life and love. The third act finds her at the point of giving up, when she realizes that perhaps it’s ok that things didn’t turn out the way she planned.
Baumbach has always shown himself to be at least a clever filmmaker, but here he exhibits influence from many of cinema’s greats. The quick sarcastic dialogue and social archetypes are reminiscent of Woody Allen (as the black and white photography and New York setting are reminiscent of Manhattan). The lively pace and whimsical young urbanites call to mind the French New Wave. But Frances Ha is still a film with a unique point of view. The consistent and distinct approach is something that puts this film several steps above 2010’s Greenberg, which never seemed to find its footing. Though still centralized around a character struggling to come to terms with his/her identity, Frances Ha flows much more smoothly, and draws us in to its main character, rather than alienate us. Not to mention that Greta Gerwig is a fantastic actress, and feels pleasantly comfortable with Baumbach’s dialogue.
The dialogue is, for me, one of the high points. In a story where major plot points are rare, it’s important that there’s something to engage us. Here, it’s quick, witty dialogue that’s sarcastically funny and immensely quotable. It instantly ingratiates us to Frances and Sophie. It allows us to enjoy time spent with characters we might hate in real life. And there is levity throughout that somehow reinforces the idea that everything is going to be ok.
The film’s exploration of friendship is another element that stands out. Frances’ troubles with her career and life plans parallel her relationship with Sophie. It’s exciting at first, when nothing lies ahead but possibilities. Sophie and Frances dream of a life in which they’ll live together in Paris, Sophie a famous publisher and Frances a famous dancer, and the world will be their oyster. But life, as always, has other plans, and Sophie’s life direction is soon dictated by her new boyfriend “Patch.” Frances wants their lives to go back to the way they were, and when she can’t get that connection with Sophie, she tries to get it with others, always failing. She creates distance between them by refusing to accept where Sophie’s life has taken her, and similarly refuses to allow her own life to go in any direction other than what she’s always dreamed. Ultimately, she has to learn that the friendship is deeper when allowed to reach beyond her parameters. Sophie will always have a connection with her that no one else will; no one else may ever even understand it. But it’s there, for both of them, forever.
Being a big fan of Noah Baumbach’s work in general, it’s exciting to see him return to form. Frances Ha is perhaps not as strong as 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, but it’s certainly one of his best films. Those familiar with his 1995 film Kicking and Screaming will certainly see some similarities here, only Frances Ha has a tighter narrative, characters with more depth, and more heart. This one is definitely a film I’ll return to, if only to enjoy hearing these characters talk to each other.