Effortless and effervescent, “Frances Ha” is a small miracle of a movie, honest and funny with an aim that’s true. It’s both a timeless story of the joys and sorrows of youth and a dead-on portrait of how things are right now for one particular New York woman who, try as she might, can’t quite get her life together.
That would be the Frances of the title (the Ha isn’t explained until the film’s charming final frame), a joint creation of and career high point for both star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach, who met on the director’s “Greenberg” and co-wrote the script.
Together they have created an American independent film (shot in luminous black and white by Sam Levy) that feels off the cuff but is in fact exactly made by a filmmaker in total control of his resources. With a soundtrack that makes liberal use of music from Georges Delerue, a frequent Francois Truffaut collaborator, it’s got the energy and verve of the French New Wave but remains unmistakably itself.
Though both Gerwig, a fixture on the New York independent scene who’s moved on to bigger features, and Baumbach, Oscar-nominated for writing the marvelous “The Squid and the Whale,” are known quantities on their own, they’ve increased their effectiveness by working together.
For the actress, a quicksilver presence with a fluid face who couldn’t be more natural on screen, “Frances” is an opportunity to build a character of unexpected complexity. For the director, having a gifted collaborator able to be so completely present adds a lightness his films have not always had and has made possible an irresistible command of the moment.
If anyone lives completely in that moment, it is Frances, a 27-year-old apprentice dancer who is so many often contradictory things at once it’s difficult to know where to begin — or end — in describing her.
Feckless and rootless, gawky and graceful, over-analytical and uncertain, always apologizing yet often oblivious, Frances is making a hash out of her own life because she doesn’t know any better. If there is a wrong turn to be made, she will take it; if there is a way to sabotage herself, she will find it. A more or less disposable person for everyone she knows, she is aware that adult life is beyond her capacity at present. “I’m so embarrassed,” she says. “I’m not a real person yet.”
And yet there is something unmistakably endearing about Frances, something winning in her vulnerability and her pluck, the way she bounces back like a Joe Palooka toy from her many misadventures. She is unmistakably good-hearted, and it is impossible not to root for her as she throws herself into life and tries to determine if there can be a place there for her. Frances’ woeful mantra in these struggles, which she brandishes whenever life’s pressures become too great, is the defensive “I’m not messy, I’m busy.”
Because Frances’ life is so peripatetic (Baumbach has aptly characterized the film as “a road movie with apartments”), the screenwriters divide the proceedings into different sections by using title cards listing her various addresses.
The first address is on Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn, where Frances lives with Sophie, her former college roommate and someone so central to her life that Frances turns down the chance to move in with her boyfriend because of a vague promise made to Sophie about sharing the lease. Frances is way invested in a fantasy future they’ve concocted for themselves (“Tell me the story of us,” she importunes Sophie when she’s feeling low) and is pleased that the neighborhood thinks of them as “a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore.”
Beautifully played by British actress Mickey Sumner (the daughter of Sting and Trudy Styler), Sophie cares but she’s much more calculating, directed and self-absorbed than her roommate, and the ever-shifting sands between these two as the film progresses is one of “Frances’” continuing dynamics.
The next address is 22 Center St. in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where Frances occupies the spare room in an apartment rented by two trust-funder types with more money than good sense. Lev (Adam Driver of “Girls” fame) spends his time hanging with celebrities and chasing women, while Benji seems to be working as a writer while actually spending his time searching for vintage Ray-Bans on EBay. Neither man knows what to make of Frances, with Benji coming as close as he can by pronouncing her “undateable.”
No matter where else she stays, and her addresses include stops in Sacramento, Poughkeepsie, even a brief weekend in Paris, Frances reveals a gift for falling into improbable situations and doing unlikely things.
But because Frances’ feelings are never far from the surface no matter what her address, our heart always goes out to her energy and her spirit. If this film has a signature sequence, it’s a long tracking shot of its namesake running fluidly through the streets of New York with David Bowie’s “Modern Love” playing on the soundtrack. In that moment, in fact in all of its moments, “Frances Ha” more than makes you feel hopeful about movies, it allows you to feel that way about life as well.
MPAA rating: R for sexual references and language
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing at: Landmark, West Los Angeles; Arclight, Hollywood