Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Frances Ha (2013) – Review

Review: Frances Ha is a fun coming-of-age drama that is light and easy going. The film is about Frances, a young woman in her late twenties who is still trying to find her way in New York City. She is a dancer, but that might just be an excuse for finding a real job. Frances has to make some tough choices after her best friend and roommate, Sophie, decides to move in her boyfriend leaving Frances to find new arrangements.

Set mostly in New York, shot in black & white, and dealing with young people trying to find their place after college, the film seems to take on the role of a modern update of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. Frances, like Tom, is a bit of an outsider even within her own group of friends, due to her awkward quirks – something that has seemingly become a staple of indie films (quirkiness in the lead character). She seems to always stick out everywhere she goes.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach and writer-star Greta Gerwig seem to want to tell a coming-of-age story with Frances Ha. The film is very playful and never really gets too bogged down in emotional turmoil, even as Frances faces tough times/choices. She is quite resilient. But again, she is in her late twenties – one would think that she would have grown up by now? And yet, Frances embarks on journey towards maturity and understanding, leaving behind her more childish careless tendencies and self-proclaimed bad-decision-making (or at least tries to). In short, she has to grow up – even if she is desperately clinging to anything that might save her from accepting that truth.

Much like the TV Series Girls, Frances Ha seems to perfectly hit its time and place (much like Metropolitan did in 1990). Its is a time capsule recording the culture, style, language, and overall feel of today’s young people (at least those in urban settings). While the main narrative arc is somewhat universal (a coming-of-age story), it is interesting to imagine how this might play in ten or twenty years, as the tone of the film is completely saturated with today’s lifestyle aesthetic.

Frances Ha is very enjoyable to watch, and Baumbach and Gerwig do a great job with the character of Frances. The film is a bit of a one-woman show, thus the audience connecting with the character is vital. The viewer cannot help but like her. She is very charming, and again despite her mistakes and shortfalls her resilience endears her to the audience. The viewer wants to see her come out on top. Baumbach and Gerwig want the viewer to feel good watching the film, and in this regard the film is very successful.

However, as enjoyable as it is, the film is very light, but works mostly as a drama. Yet, the viewer never fears that things may not work out for Frances or that she may suffer any real pain, as she seems to breeze through everything (that is just who she is – dancing in the streets). The film is not dramatic enough to be moving or emotionally engaging, nor is it funny enough to carry the audience on laughs. It does not strive to be more than it is – just a simple light enjoyable story about a girl who grows up.

Frances Ha may not be thrilling, dramatic, or hilarious, but it is nonetheless a pleasure to watch.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Noah Baumbach has seemingly been fascinated with intellectual slackers with his films (my favorite of which is The Squid and the Whale), but Frances Ha feels like a bit of a departure. Baumbach’s style is refreshed and vibrant, and narratively it is much less concerned with those who are frustrated by their surroundings and instead embraces a lead character who loves life and wants to be in the world (she is just trying to find where and how she fits). The sarcastic tone has been replaced with one of joyful vitality, which infects the whole film and through it the audience (as said multiple times above: Frances Ha is a light enjoyable experience). Baumbach’s filmmaking is engaging again (after a few lesser films) and I look forward to what he does next.

Cinematographer Sam Levy’s black & white photography works very well with the tone and style of the film. It seems to give France’s journey a very personal feel (almost documentary-like). Baumbach’s shooting style also has a cinema-verite quality to it, as if the audience is eavesdropping on the lives of real people. Everything has a very naturalistic look. Sam Lisenco’s production design works hand-in-hand with the photography as his sets feel very natural and organic. Baumbach also uses a great 1970s/1980s soundtrack for the film that reenforces the light/fun spirit of the film (songs like David Bowie's Modern Love and Hot Chocolate's Ever1's a Winner). Baumbach uses music from French New Wave films as well - as this is very much influenced by those films and has a similar tone. While there is no score, the soundtrack works incredibly well and is one of the best aspects of the film.

The cast is very good, all giving performances that feel naturalistic and improvised, as if they were saying the lines for the first time (fitting the overall aesthetic style for the film). Adam Driver and Michael Zegen are good in small supporting roles. Mickey Sumner is wonderful in her supporting role as Sophie, giving a breakthrough performance. However, the whole film belongs to Greta Gerwig as Frances. She has a fantastic screen presence always drawing attention towards her. She does a great job creating a nervous, awkward energy that is both funny and charming.

Summary & score: Frances Ha is the perfect film for those looking for something funny, light, and with great characters and style. It is an utter joy. 7/10

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