Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) is a 27-year-old who just isn’t quite there yet. She’s heavy-handed, dependent, aimless, and, judging by the film’s title, about six letters short of establishing who she really is. The opposite may thus be said of Gerwig, who monopolises a picture that embraces her acclaimed Mumblecore talent and affirms her standing among the top actresses from over the pond.
Frances Ha presents us with a female lead performance which for all that is is frustrating, it is enchanting, and that’s Gerwig. She possesses a clumsy naturalism that evokes the sympathies of even the hardest heart, bringing new life into well-trodden but necessarily universal concepts of unconditional friendship and the journey to sophisticated adulthood. Gerwig injects as much charm into the film as you’ll encounter in Amélie or Annie Hall, and student audiences may find a particular affinity as they undergo the turbulent transition from education to career.
It would be unfair to overlook the supporting cast, with Frances’ best friend Sophie (Mickey Summer) given a robust on-screen portrayal. However, whereas Sophie finds herself going one step ahead of Frances in the quest for selfhood, it is a different story with the actresses. Summer and Gerwig work well together on-screen but the latter majorly dictates the state of play, even for a lead, making Summer’s robust performance an absolute necessity.
A better partnership is that of Gerwig and boyfriend director Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote the screenplay. The film’s dialogue captures the subtleties and jocularities of intimate friendship, with the term “undateable” featuring as a recurring in-joke into which the audience are invited to join. Frances’ inability to communicate formally is captured superbly at a dinner-table scene, where the high register of her success-driven hosts agonisingly exposes her youthful ignorance – an instance where Gerwig’s Mumblecore beginnings shine.
The film’s main let-down is its plot which, for the majority of the film, thrives on the unpredictability of Frances’ life. Shifting economically from scene to scene prevents the pace from slowing, and just before you think you’ve had enough, you’re thankfully plunged into the next step of independence. Frances’ life isn’t always going to be the most interesting thing around, which means as far as the plot is concerned, quantity has to compensate for the lack of quality. Gerwig is exceptionally good, but a sometimes bare-bones plot can only give her so much to do. Perhaps it’s that contrast which lets her shine like she does.
Yet the most disappointing aspect arrives at the last, where an almost montage-like, wrapped-up ending pulls far too many punches. Every loose end is too simply tied up, leaving you in a quite definite and noticeably underwhelmed disposition.
Having said that, it doesn’t take long before you sum up the picture as a whole and affirm just how good it is. It has energy, it has style, it has charisma, and it has a message. Baumbach delivers plenty of effective wide shots and as such incorporates the strong dance element particularly well. The soundtrack is nothing to be sniffed at either, with David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ a distinct delight. Frances Ha has many strengths, but its biggest strength of all is, without doubt, Greta Gerwig, and as for any weaknesses, they only serve to make Gerwig’s performance even stronger.