Finding roommates in NYC, “the city of all possibilities” to share your space and often your innermost dreams and insecurities is the backdrop of the eccentric, sometimes annoying comic/tragic film FRANCES HA, directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written with Greta Gerwig who plays the Frances of the title. The Ha part will be wittily explained in the final frame. The movie is shot in a sepia tone – no color to distract from our fundamental human needs – finding a home, finding love and/or companionship, realizing our ambitions, and finding the economic means to do so, in this case preferably in the arts, covering the wide gamut of the “creative” spectrum. No character is a day-laborer - all come from the subculture of talented, yearning, touching on 30 year olds that populate our fair city moving from Chinatown to Washington Heights, and even dipping a toe into Brooklyn. But things are not always black and white – luminous grays make the city and its characters both more depressing and also more transparent.
We meet Frances (Greta Gerwig) and the beloved roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner) acting a bit bizarrely “mock fighting” on the streets of NYC, but then falling into one another’s arms in laughter. This scene encapsulates the intensity of their relationship as most adored best friends who can communicate, understand and accept one another – no “guy” intrudes on this special bond. NOT until Sophie announces that she is going to leave and move into another apartment with her boyfriend aptly named Patch. This shocking announcement leaves the loyal Frances at very loose ends. An aspiring dancer, and not a very good one, (but a much better choreographer,) she spends the rest of the movie wildly searching for a Sophie substitute – not only to live with, but to rekindle what was once a cherished kinship. Platonic vs. romantic love, the deeply affecting roots of each are explored.
My movie mate observed (and I agree with her) that Greta Gerwig is an actress who is always Greta Gerwig – like the Diane Keaton of Woody Allen films is always Diane Keaton. There seems to be a cult following for this lovely actress who through her body gestures proclaims contradictions. Tall, lithe, slightly awkward, and overtly “bouncy”– skipping and running like a gazelle along the streets of NYC, as if the sheer beauty of movement can overcome despair.
Throughout the film, Frances is so vulnerable, dependent, and oblivious to social cues, that I cringed and squirmed uncomfortably, watching how she talked too much, desperately searching to communicate – “searchers” who are too obvious are often avoided because they embarrass others – until she finally settles down within herself after a brief not-the-usual-kind of interlude to Paris. From being irritated with her character, I gradually, and surprisingly, found myself touched by Frances to the point of feeling tender affection for this fragile, oddball spirit, and was disconcerted to find that I was holding back tears.
Frances’ “coming of age” story involves a trip back to her family home in Sacramento where we experience her role as daughter with both parents (acted by her actual mother and father) in a caring environment, and a short but revelatory stint back to her Vassar College haunts. An oft-explored idea is revisited - sometimes we have to go away to come back and re-connect with our lives afresh. I have known people like Frances who are earnest and ambitious, tender yet steely and ballsy enough to discern what is needed to take what little control they can over their lives. Director Noah Baumbach skirts the all-too-familiar tightrope of clichés to make FRANCES HA worth viewing.