Thursday, June 6, 2013

Frances Ha Movie Review

Noah Baumbach came up as a filmmaker during the early 90s indie boom. His Kicking and Screaming is not only a personal little love letter to life after liberal arts college (Baumbach went to Vassar), but a wonderful addition to the stream of interesting indie hits of that era. Since then he’s been sporadic in his artistic success and has occasionally gone wider in scope and employed big names like Jeff Daniels and Ben Stiller in his films. But with Frances Ha he triumphantly returns to the creative fertile grounds of that 1990s indie style.

Shot almost guerrilla style in New York City in digital black and white and starring a cast of mostly unknowns, it retains a very strong indie feel. The sensibility of the story fits too, being the adventures of a woman in her late 20s (Greta Gerwig, who also shares a screenwriting credit) trying to be successful in life and love as the irrepressible city beats her down. She’s a dancer, but not a very good one so she has little future with the dance company that employs her. Her latest boyfriend dumps her basically because she’s attached at the hip to her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner).

The whole look and feel of the film is retro enough that I was jarred the moment we hear the familiar marimba ringtone of a character’s iPhone. “Wait,” I thought, “why do they have cell phones?” Such is the power of the production design, which gives it a New York feel akin to Woody Allen’s Manhattan or Edward Burns’ Sidewalks of New York, a place where people live their lives as opposed to locations used for Hollywood movies.

In Gerwig, Baumbach has found an actress who was born to play in his style. It’s interesting to me that Whit Stilman, Baumbach’s closest artistic twin, used her in his most recent film. More fascinating still is the way she is the muse who has given these two unique writer-directors their best and most truthful entry into the minds of women. Baumbach has always hewed closely to the mind of men, their wants and desires. He has always written his female characters through the prism of the men without whom their existences would be otherwise undefined. Parker Posey and Olivia d’Abo in Kicking and Screaming are foils for the male characters. Annabella Sciorra sets things in motion for Eric Stoltz and Chris Eigemann in Mr. Jealousy. Laura Linney is viewed mainly through the eyes of her son and husband in The Squid and the Whale. Similar to her role in Stilman’s Damsels in Distress, Gerwig’s character propels a story that handles female relationships better than most movies and nearly as well as any directed by a woman. The men remain subsidiary characters.

The whole thing doesn’t really amount to much. At the very least it’s character writing like we used to see from Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and the rest of the early 90s independent filmmakers who threw together scrappy productions that nevertheless left indelible marks. Baumbach and Gerwig kind of conveniently tie everything together for Frances by leaving her in a better state regarding almost every aspect of her life by the film’s end, but then this is the 2010s. We’re not interested in the self-destruction and nihilism of the booming 90s. This is a post-9/11 world. And we’re in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Maybe this is now what indie films look like.


  1. I'm doing my dissertation on Baumbach, and came across this review! Really interesting read, and given me some new things to ponder on. I totally agree with your comment about Baumbach writing female characters through the prism of men, and it's really interesting to see him turning away from that with Frances Ha. What are your thoughts on Margot at the Wedding? That's obviously another of his films which focuses on a strong female character...

    1. thanks for the comment. unfortunately i haven't seen Margot at the Wedding.

      it's funny, as i read your comment i hardly remembered the movie or what i said in my review. it's interesting how these things occur to me as i'm going through the writing process, but my thoughts are often so on the spot without a great deal of deeper thinking that they're also easily forgotten.

      i'm glad you found something useful here, though.