In the middle of Frances Ha, Frances whose last name is not really Ha, runs through the streets while David Bowie’s Modern Love plays.
The movie is monochromatic and it chooses to let us peek into the life of Frances, who is 27 and not very good at being an adult, instead of telling a traditionally formatted story. Frances is rather modest as a character. She has ordinary concerns and she is quite flawed like every other person in a movie set in New York. I am rather tired of the ‘whatever like nothing’ people and the ‘I don’t fit in but that’s cool’ people and the plain vapid vacuous people that I find online. And Frances isn’t really different. It is Greta Gerwig’s performance as the titular character who is so concerned with the fitting in that she tries and tries but only ends up sticking out in odd places that elevates this stylish black-and-white portrait.
I normally don’t like popular films that go for the “young person finds self” formula. They tend to take the simplistic route featuring unrealistic representations of modern times and situations, with a generous helping of clichés. The characters are rather good looking people who I can’t possibly relate to on any level and they almost always have some kind of grand competition to win. Frances Ha on the other hand, despite some intellectual pretensions, takes the modern route.
Frances is all about bad mistakes and bad decisions and she usually is rather clumsy and foolish. She also seems believable. In the age of CGI and rampaging movie make-believe voodoo, that is an incredible accomplishment. Usually when a character acts irresponsibly and then ends up failing, I can’t help but think “All your fault, mate.” Gerwig is so sincere and that you can’t help but think that she is the “same person, only with different hair”. She looks convincing as she attempts to progress in her chosen vocation as a modern dancer and resemble “a real person”. She wanders around from New York to Poughkeepsie, from Sacramento to Paris accompanied by glorious French nouvelle vague inspired visuals. The movie looks like a successor to Woody Allen’s Manhattan but it feels like it has Annie Hall firmly behind it.
The film starts off with Frances and Sophie as best friends who live together. Things predictably go sour leaving Frances abandoned. Frances is eventually minus boyfriend, minus best friend, minus home, and minus job. Pretty bad scenario, right? Sophie (daughter of rock musician Sting!) meanwhile moves to Japan with her boyfriend. There is actually a grand competition – a Christmas show for the dance company – and Frances is told she won’t be participating in it. She also needs to find a new home as the one she has right now is simply unaffordable. What follows is a parade of delicate, funny and awkward snapshots of Frances. There’s her parents (played by Gerwig’s real parents) and festive cheer that would seem straight out of Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. A dinner given by rich peers with stable lives leads to an impulsive, bankrupting trip to Paris. Her superior at the dance company tells her that she could take a desk job to support herself. She tells her superior that she has a teaching job. At the teaching job they tell her that technically she is not allowed to teach. She lives in a dorm at Vassar and works odd jobs for the college events. It is bleak but then black and white films tend to be.
This is when and where the movie distinguishes itself. So you’ve had some bad luck. You usually understand that things change and you get used to them if they are out of your control. Frances’s temporary slip of fortunes never sees her do something that a regular person wouldn’t. There is no part of the movie that goes overboard. There is none of the relationship sabotaging antics or comical but friendly retaliation that most movies employ. She moves on. She has hope and she is not afraid to use it.
Greta Gerwig probably turns in a career-best performance. She is as annoying as young people can be and yet as wonderful as only young people can be. Everyone nowadays is expressing themselves. Being alternative is the norm now. If you don’t fit in, flaunt it. Everyone also seems obsessed with the idea of The One, a sort of romantic grand slam. It is refreshing to see that Frances has no love interest, no romantic pursuits. Isn’t it rather impossible to find a female character that isn’t having her love life dissected?
As Frances says in the film, her understanding of “love” is when you and that special someone are at a party together. You are busy socializing. But as you scan the room, you see each other. Two people who can exchange a special look of implicit understanding on an entirely different, secret wavelength.
Guess how the movie ends?
Watch the official trailer, here: