(Noah Baumbach, 2012)
Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a 27 year old dancer, barely making a living in New York but sustained by her sunny personality and her friendship with roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Only, early in the film, after Baumbach has beautifully established how important this friendship is ("We're like an old lesbian couple who don't sleep together anymore"), Sophie moves out and up, leaving their Brooklyn rental for a Tribeca place with a colleague, and growing more serious about her relationship with the boyfriend Frances dislikes. Frances, bereft and quietly heartbroken, spends the rest of the movie drifting from apartment to apartment, sleeping in spare rooms and on sofas, returning to her parents in California for Christmas, spending a weekend of exquisite loneliness in Paris on a whim, her career never going where she wants it, no boyfriend appearing to replace Sophie, her debt growing and income shrinking.
That is the story, such as it is. Baumbach and his co-writer Gerwig present this beautifully detailed character study in sketches. We see Frances in various different situations, observe how she plays off different people. She rarely seems to fit in, and trying so hard to do so only worsens it so that there are a few scenes here of precision agony, Frances tying herself in knots socially; with a newly independent Sophie, with affluent friends at a dinner party, with her boss. Much of this material recalls the "mumblecore" scene from which Gerwig emerged - we have endless snatches of middle class hipster twentysomething dialogue, some of it very funny, some of it utterly irritating. But Baumbach has developed into a truly accomplished filmmaker and he has the confidence here to reflect the dual influences of Woody Allen (always present in his work) and the Nouvelle Vague (some Delerue features on the soundtrack as a tip of the hat) - hence his film, which seems almost shapeless, has its own subtle arcs and motifs.
While it plays with a beautifully featherlight quality it is surprisingly weighty on the way a person's 20s can just drift by, on the way friendships change and maturity kicks in, on what we want and what we feel we need. Frances, shocked by Sophie's "dumping" of her, takes much of the film to recover, and the way she deals with her pain and how it effects her is nicely indicated by Gerwig, in what is a fabulous performance. While Frances is undeniably annoying at times, she is also funny and sympathetic and entirely human. Her drunken speech on what she expects from love is a great little moment in a film full of great little moments.
There are also a few truly rapturous, bigger moments (Like Frances' race down a Manhattan street to Bowie's "Modern Love"), captured stunningly by cinematographer Sam Levy in glorious black and white. Baumbach has always had a greater sense of cinema than many filmmakers with similar interests in the quiet drama and comedy of people talking, and so he treats us to a few lovely sequences. Frances in Paris, Sacramento and back at Vassar are all similarly lovely set-pieces, and they all combine to make for what might be Baumbach's best film. Funny, brilliantly observed, visually lovely and quietly moving, Frances Ha is fantastic.