Review: Frances Ha

Frances Ha (2012)
Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Charlotte d’Ambroise, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen. Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. Directed by Noah Baumbach.

Frances and Sophie are the kind of best friends who fall asleep in each other’s beds and who seem to be more excited about talking with each other on the phone than with their boyfriends in person. Every conversation is laden with inside jokes and silly gestures that crack them both up, and at first Frances Ha seems like it’s going to be a movie about this friendship, and you kind of want it to be.

But it’s really a movie about Frances, a sort-of professional dancer who good enough to be sort-of a professional dancer but maybe not much better, and although she’s graceful in performance, she is awkward just about everywhere else. In the middle of conversations at parties with people she’s just met, she blurts out strange monologues about what she’s always wanted in life. When a possible suitor touches her shoulder, she makes the buzzing game-show sound of rejection—aloud—while she flinches away from the offending hand.

Frances stumbles her way from one living arrangement to the next, struggling financially and interpersonally, balancing precariously somehow between joy and depression, between destitution and scraping by. What Frances wants and whether or not she has what it takes to get it isn’t nearly as interesting as what we want for Frances as we see her struggle. I wasn’t sure what I wanted her to achieve, but I knew that I really, really wanted her to be happy. Placed in weird parties with normal people, Frances can’t seem to say or do anything that makes sense, but the same behaviors in the midst of other friends, including Sophie, make her shine.

Presented beautifully in black and white, the technical decisions in the film are almost as impressive as the writing decisions, and if you get a chance to see the Criterion Collection release of this film, short presentations on both aspects are offered as extra features. The extra evening it might take you to view the few but fascinating extras (including an interview of Noah Baumbach by Peter Bogdanovich) is totally worth it, and they make a second viewing even better than the first.


Review: Mistress America

Mistress America (2015)
Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung. Directed by Noah Baumbach.

mistressTracy has just begun her frosh year at Barnard, and college isn’t turning out quite the way it was promised. She’s rejected from the literary society, her roommate is unfriendly, her professors aren’t happy with her contributions in class, and if the fun campus life that was illustrated in the viewbook still exists, she can’t seem to find it. But her mother is about to remarry, and her future step-sister, the thirty-something Brooke, has an apartment, a life, and several jobs in New York City, so Tracy gives her a call one evening after finishing dinner by herself. So needy is she for caring companionship that when Brooke asks if she’s eaten yet, Tracy says she hasn’t, and meets Brooke for dinner and drinks.

Brooke is free-spirited and adventurous: she jumps on stage and sings with the band in one of the bars she visits with Tracy; she lives in a huge apartment that’s zoned for commercial use; she has a boyfriend who’s helping her open her own restaurant. Tracy sees in Brooke a life lived outside the lines, someone who inspires her to stretch herself as a person and as a writer.

americaWhen things go a little crazy, Tracy comes along for the ride, bringing a frosh Columbia student and his girlfriend along, too. The foursome meets an ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend at the mansion they share.

Greta Gerwig as Brooke is flighty and charismatic, but it’s difficult to tell if she’s smart or just really good at acting smart, and Tracy as her wide-eyed future stepsister is involved but not really involved, a kind of Nick Caraway to Brooke’s Jay Gatsby. It’s an interesting relationship, and the character’s conversations are fascinating, but not for how well they connect Brooke with Tracy. Instead, each character’s lines seem to be inspired by the other’s, without actually being responses, as if each is only vaguely aware that there is a topic of conversation, not really listening to the other except for jumping-in points where they can share their next thoughts.

Add a few more characters to the dynamic, and you have a truly bizarre situation with non-sequiturs galore. Conversations sound like two or three different plays are being performed at the same time in the same space, and at times the blocking and set resemble those belonging to a stage play, each actor playing to an imaginary audience. I was reminded of several of David Mamet’s films, all adaptations of his plays, and wondered if the script wasn’t first conceived of as a play.

It’s more strange than funny, but it’s funny enough to keep one engaged.