Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fleet, insightful, funny ha Ha

I remember 27, more meaningful than 21 or 30. I remember somehow knowing it would be transformative, even if I did little to actively transform myself. “27 is old,” as someone asserts in Frances Ha, but it’s young too. Certain peers stop excusing you for certain shortcomings, but few will write you off completely if you don’t get your shit together. 27 is suspension, wariness, looming threats of something called maturity, and persistent opportunities for parties to be prolonged. Everything I just wrote is wildly subjective, but it’s a subjectivity shared with the fleet, utterly unimposing yet cumulatively insightful new comedy directed by Noah Baumbach and written by Baumbach and the film’s star, Greta Gerwig. The titular heroine of Frances Ha is 27, mostly adrift, clinging to sketchy, outdated dreams, and to an idea of friendship that seems set to expire any second.

Frances and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) are best friends and roommates living in Brooklyn. They share nearly everything, including, most nights, a bed. They are “like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore.” When in need of comfort, Frances asks Sophie to “tell me the story of us,” a ritual to maintain an adolescent fantasy image of the friends-as-power couple, conquering some corner of the world, Sophie’s being the publishing industry, Frances’ being the world of dance. About that: one of the elements I love about Frances Ha is how perfectly believable and preposterous it is that Frances wants to be a dancer. She can’t quite coordinate her body to do things like walk fluidly. She doesn’t look entirely comfortable, or grounded, while sitting in a chair or shadowing a guest at a party where she’s working as a server. In one scene she fumbles with a sandwich like she’s still learning to eat. Most of her movements seem involuntary: the way conversation with Sophie automatically prompts illustrative physical gestures even when they’re only speaking on the phone. Frances Ha is above all a character study, and Gerwig brings to just the right balance of self-effacing self-analysis and actor’s craft. Her character is adorable yet maddeningly passive. She’s makes you laugh, makes you crazy, breaks your heart if you’re in the unfortunate position of trying to be her boyfriend, or something. The film’s story, as such, is about Sophie moving in with her boyfriend and trying to grow up, and Frances missing Sophie wanting to follow her lead without having much of an idea as to how.

Baumbach has sculpted Frances Ha with a pretty irresistible sort of comic charisma. Much of the film is comprised of short, abrupt scenes, with hard cuts to sound and image, whose connections are not always obvious, just a line here, a gesture there, creating an inherently buoyant, clipped rhythm, as engagingly disjointed as Frances’ daily life. The photography is black and white, with a level of fuzziness that invokes present-tense nostalgia. Along with early Truffaut, Woody Allen is an obvious influence, not only in the silvery views of New York but in the patter, the urbane vernacular, the particular use of music over montage, and the title cards that state each address Frances inhabits, however briefly. Frances claims to have trouble leaving places, yet once her living situation with Sophie falls apart all she does is leave. She moves in with two dudes and their liquor trolley. She embarks on a Christmas visit to the folks in Sacramento, and takes an impulsive, poorly planned trip to Paris. For all her apparent inertia, Frances does indeed movie, perhaps most memorably in a sequence that finds her doing nothing more than skipping, dancing, scurrying down several Manhattan blocks to David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love.’ It’s a lovely scene of a young woman still capable of fleeing her own ample self-consciousness and giving in to the sheer propulsion of a given moment. Frances Ha is all about moments, this one and this one and this. And it has just enough of them to make us feel like we’ve really come to know some substantial, larger moment within a single life, a moment—27—that will surely transform the bearer of that life in a permanent, lasting way. 

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