“Tell me the story of us,” Frances asks Sophie near the beginning of “Frances Ha.” They are two young women living in New York, a few years removed from college. This film is the story of young people, and specifically a young person. As he has done previously, writer/director Noah Baumbach works in shades of dissatisfaction and angst. It’s not happy or sad in its depiction of a hopeless dreamer, her aspirations far exceeding her physical talent. Yes, Frances drifts away from best friend Sophie as the latter clings to a man she doesn’t particularly like; yes, she becomes caught between two men and ends up with neither; yes, she is forced to take a measly position at her alma-matter to make ends meet. In “Adaptation,” Charlie Kauffman says that he wants to make a film “where nothing happens, where people don’t change, where there are no epiphanies, where they struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved.” As much as Frances would love to hear “the story of us” as she envisions it, what she doesn’t realize is that she lives it every day.
“Frances Ha” is populated by post-collegiate twentysomethings, the perfect subjects with which to craft Baumbach’s achingly truthful account. There are few “adults” present. Only when Frances visits her family do we see anyone over the age of thirty, and even then, they’re given little screen time or any scenes of note. This is a film about the young, the unbridled, the up-and-coming. The movie spans several months, but it has the feeling of capturing but a few moments. We follow Frances on the subway, eating lunch, reading, smoking, and dancing. Everything is technically bare. It’s very much like theater; the audience is an observer, someone on the outside looking in. There isn’t a plot to follow in normal terms. The drama comes from the mundane, the everyday, that which might normally be glossed over in favor of explosions or guns being pointed. It’s an anti-movie. It’s a beautiful study in verisimilitude.
It might be said that Baumbach makes “people movies,” movies about people talking and yelling and kissing and living at a base level. Taken together, his movies paint a portrait of life at it’s most strikingly real. Yet there exists a touch of whimsy. Baumbach’s triumph is his casting of Greta Gerwig as Frances. The job she does in this film is understated enough to be unimpressive, ordinary enough to be dull at first glance. But Gerwig is intelligent enough an actor to not overdo it for the sake of being memorable. There’s no one scene of hers that stands out from the others, no five-minute monologue, no tears shed. Her performance builds throughout the ninety-five minute runtime, and we remember specific moments, not because the movie has been built in a way that emphasizes them, but because we recognize their inherent importance. This is the magic of Gerwig’s emotional weight as an actor; rather, how she uses that weight
Gerwig’s Frances, fed up with best friend Sophie’s strung-along boyfriend Benji, asks to be accompanied to the restroom. Skeptically, Sophie asks, “Really? We’re still doing this?” It’s a far departure from the closeness the two girls shared in the opening scenes; indeed, from this point Sophie will fade in and out, no longer the center of her ex-roommates life. An interesting way to watch this movie is to consider yourself as one of two characters: Frances or Sophie. Both are dreamers, yet we get the feeling that Sophie has given something up, as if a part of her is missing. We never see anything but from the perspective of our heroine. We don’t know Sophie’s feelings, only Frances’s perception of them. The viewer is not privy to the going-ons of characters outside the realm of Frances, the earnest, happy-go-lucky, prospective dancer, quite possibly the embodiment of us, not as a collective viewership, but as a collective people.
I make no distinction as to what I mean by “us.” I don’t mean to say that Baumbach had one intention or the other. Frances certainly does when she coaxes the story out of Sophie just one more time, the story of two women and their aspirations. But when the former does ask, and the latter acquiesces, there is such reverence between them, the very idea that they might one day find success turned into this mythical tale to be shared only between them. It’s the crux of the film, this idea that our dreams hang over everything. It captures the rejuvenating freedom of possibility, the subtle beauty of small moments, of eating grilled cheese at three in the morning, of enjoying a book on the subway, of laughing with someone you love. It leaves the viewer with this: there is awe to be found in everything.
Is it premature to call Noah Baumbach an auteur? His newest, “While We’re Young,” is only his seventh directorial effort. He’s a relatively obscure name in American cinema; his friend and collaborator Wes Anderson has only recently begun receiving mainstream attention. Baumbach maintains the classification of “Indie Filmmaker,” someone whose art is displayed at festivals and private screenings, rarely making it to your local theater. His movies are not big attractions, they aren’t loud or gaudy or shocking, they lack the cartoonish nature of Anderson’s work. They are the everyday produced on the silver screen. It’s art going beyond the imitation of life. It’s closer to incarnation.
“Frances Ha” is available to view on Netflix Instant. “While We’re Young” expands into theaters nationwide this Friday, April 3rd. Check back for our review.
Article by Lucas Dispoto