×

Film Review: ‘Frances Ha’

Mumblecore star Greta Gerwig collaborates with her "Greenberg" director Noah Baumbach to deliver an affectionate, stylishly black-and-white portrait of a still-unfledged Gotham gal.

With:
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Charlotte D'Amboise, Adam Driver, Hannah Dunne, Michael Esper, Grace Gummer, Patrick Heusinger, Josh Hamilton, Cindy Katz. Maya Kazan, Justine Lupe, Britta Phillips, Juliet Rylance, Dean Wareham, Michael Zegan.

You gotta love Greta Gerwig: Even as the radiant mumblecore star’s Hollywood stock continues to rise, the actress remains true to her dramatic roots. In “Frances Ha,” Gerwig collaborates with co-writer/director Noah Baumbach to create a character whose unexceptional concerns and everyday foibles prove as compelling as any New York-set concept picture, delivering an affectionate, stylishly black-and-white portrait of a still-unfledged Gotham gal. With Baumbach’s help, Gerwig seems to have found the right vessel for her voice, capturing the spirit of a generation in a film whose appeal should resonate well beyond the demographic it depicts.

There’s a perfectly good explanation for the pic’s title, but to give it away would spoil the last in a series of organic surprises that constitute “Frances Ha.” This modest monochromatic lark doesn’t present a story — or even a traditional sequence of scenes — so much as it offers spirited glimpses into the never-predictable life of Frances, a 27-year-old dancer still navigating the topsy-turvy post-collegiate ordeal of reconciling crazy boyfriends, flaky roommates and crushing career disappointments. That same period has fueled at least two decades of self-reflexive storytelling, from Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” to Lena Dunham’s “Girls” (to name two New York examples), and here brings a revitalized Baumbach back to his snappy “Kicking and Screaming” roots.

Popular on Variety

Neither Frances nor best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) ever picture themselves getting married. As it is, the two tentatively coupled straight white girls are quite content cohabiting in Brooklyn and living “like an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” But when Sophie decides to move to her dream Tribeca apartment with another friend, Frances is left to find a new place for herself — a fitting metaphor for the big-picture transition the barely independent young lady is facing in her life at large.

According to Gerwig, in the year 2012, 27 happens to be that critical age when not-yet-adults cross the “shadow line” into maturity — a notion the well-read actress lifted from a Bildungsroman by Joseph Conrad. She and Baumbach, in designing their plausibly messy heroine, illustrate the malleability of Frances’ yet-unformed identity by shadowing her through at least half a dozen different residences.

Though Gerwig toyed with a similarly rocky adjustment in rebound comedy “Lola Versus,” this livelier and more fully rounded character study benefits from the perspective a slightly older-and-wiser director brings. Along with producer Scott Rudin, Baumbach has been one of the biggest industry champions for the mumblecore set, and here, he collaborates with Gerwig (whom he first directed in “Greenberg”) on the vital detail so many of those DIY projects lack: a script.

Otherwise, “Frances Ha” feels in sync with the raggedy yet sincere semi-autobiographical films surfacing these days at Sundance, SXSW and other U.S. fests. But Baumbach pushes beyond sincerity in search of truth, drawing from such stylistic forebears as the French New Wave, Woody Allen and Andy Warhol’s Factory films to capture a reality that has eluded him on his more polished dramedies. Here, it helps that he has not only chosen a lead who’s likable in spite of her flaws, but also opted to shoot this relatively inexpensive production in black and white, thereby making it that much easier for auds to consider the pic’s potentially mundane situations through the lens of Art.

As the allegedly “undateable” Frances drifts from one apartment to the next — staying with a pair of rich-kid creatives (Michael Zegan and Adam Driver) one month, flying home to Sacramento the next, and even allowing for a spontaneous weekend trip to Paris — she encounters other personalities that allow the film to more fully reveal hers. “Frances Ha” isn’t a plot picture, but a portrait, after all. Where other performers act, Gerwig manages to just be, making her precisely the right young star to carry such a genial glimpse at a character who doesn’t even seem to realize she’s trying to find herself.

Film Review: 'Frances Ha'

Production: An RT Features presentation of a Pine District, Scott Rudin production. (International sales: United Talent Agency, Los Angeles.) Produced by Noah Baumbach, Scott Rudin, Lila Yacoub, Rodrigo Teixeira. Executive producers, Fernando Loureiro, Lourenco Sant'anna. Co-producers, Oscar Boyson, Eli Bush. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Screenplay, Baumbach, Greta Gerwig.

Crew: Camera (B&W), Sam Levy; editor, Jennifer Lame; music supervisor, George Drakoulias; production designer, Sam Lisenco; sound, Gillian Francis, Colin R. Alexander; re-recording mixer, Paul Hsu; casting, Douglas Aibel. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 1, 2012. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations; New York Film Festival.) Running time: 85 MIN.

With: Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Charlotte D'Amboise, Adam Driver, Hannah Dunne, Michael Esper, Grace Gummer, Patrick Heusinger, Josh Hamilton, Cindy Katz. Maya Kazan, Justine Lupe, Britta Phillips, Juliet Rylance, Dean Wareham, Michael Zegan.

More Film

  • Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and

    Film News Roundup: Leonardo DiCaprio Presenting Robert De Niro SAG Life Achievement Award

    In today’s film news roundup, Leonardo DiCaprio will present Robert De Niro with his SAG Life Achievement Award, the Oliver Sacks documentary finds a home and UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television gets a new dean. AWARD PRESENTATION Leonardo DiCaprio has been selected to present Robert De Niro the SAG Life Achievement Award  at [...]

  • KARNAWAL

    ‘Karnawal,’ ‘Restless,’ ‘Summer White,’ ‘Firsts’ Win Big at Ventana Sur

    BUENOS AIRES  — With Ventana Sur now firing on multiple cylinders, featuring pix-in post or project competitions for not only art films but also genre pics and animation – two sectors embraced by young creators in Latin America – “Karnawal,” “Restless,” “Summer White” and  “Firsts” proved big winners among Ventana Sur’s arthouse and animation competitions, [...]

  • (center) George MacKay as Schofield in

    From "1917" to "Jojo Rabbit," Composers of Some of the Year's Top Scores Talk Shop

    “1917,” Thomas Newman The 20-year collaboration of director Sam Mendes and composer Thomas Newman has encompassed midlife crisis (“American Beauty”), crime in the Depression (“Road to Perdition”), the Gulf War (“Jarhead”), marriage in the 1950s (“Revolutionary Road”) and two James Bond adventures (“Skyfall,” “Spectre”). Now they’ve tackled World War I, with “1917,” but Mendes’ much-talked-about [...]

  • Billy Magnussen Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Spinoff With Billy Magnussen's Character in the Works for Disney Plus

    Disney is developing a spinoff of its live-action “Aladdin” with Billy Magnussen reprising his Prince Anders character. The unnamed project is in early development for the studio’s recently launched Disney Plus streaming service. Disney has hired Jordan Dunn and Michael Kvamme to write a script centered on the haughty Prince Anders, one of Princess Jasmine’s [...]

  • ROAD TRIP – In Disney and

    Disney Boasts a Bevy of Hopefuls for Oscar's Original Song Race

    When the Academy announces its shortlist for song nominations on Dec. 16, you can be certain that at least one Disney song will be on it and probably more. Disney songs have been nominated 33 times in the past 30 years, winning 12 of the gold statuettes. This year, the studio has at least four [...]

  • Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    It’s next to impossible for a documentary score to be Oscar-nominated alongside the dozens of fictional narratives entered each year. But it did happen, just once: In 1975, composer Gerald Fried was nominated for his music for “Birds Do It, Bees Do It,” a documentary on the mating habits of animals. Fried, now 91, perhaps [...]

  • Ron Leibman, Jessica Walter'Mary Stuart' Play

    Ron Leibman, Tony-Winning Actor Known for 'Angels in America' and 'Friends,' Dies at 82

    Ron Leibman, an Emmy-winning actor who garnered a Tony for his work in Broadway’s “Angels in America” and played the father of Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel Green on “Friends,” died on Friday. He was 82. Robert Attermann, CEO of Abrams Artists Agency, confirmed the news to Variety. No further details were immediately available. Leibman, a native [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content