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FRANCES HA – The Review

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Here’s a film that takes a look at modern twenty-somethings in a fresh way. While in earlier generations, those in that age bracket (if they were fortunate to do four years of higher education, or a military stint) would whip off their cap and gown and settle into a steady job and perhaps start a family (after finding that dream suburban home). For many college grads today, those post-school years can be the start of a nomadic limbo, drifting from job to job and apartment to apartment, even returning to the family nest (insisting to the parents that this is just temporary). The title character of FRANCES HA doesn’t resort to that, but she is sort-of floating without a clear destination in sight. But thanks to Greta Gerwig, the film’s star and co-writer, we’re rooting for her even as she takes a ill-planned detour. Of course the movie’s director and other writer Noah Baumbach (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE) probably has a lot to do with the film’s appealing bouncy tone. It’s a pleasure to hang out for ninety minutes with the constantly moving (changing homes, that is), but not really going anywhere Ms.F.

It’s a perfect Spring-like New York day when we first meet Frances (Gerwig) sharing said day with current roomie and BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner). They “play-fight” in the park, snack, tap dance, dash through the street intersections, hop on the subway and return to the cozy apartment they share where they chat into the wee hours. But this idyllic existence is about to end. Sophie, who’s the bigger breadwinner with her job as a book editor at a big publishing house, wants to move into a place in a better neighborhood with another pal. Frances struggles to make ends meet between waitressing and toiling in a dance troupe, so she can’t follow her and she can’t stay there solo. Oh, and Frances just broke up with her boyfriend. Luckily two guy pals let her take over a spare room at their place. Frances and Sophia begin to drift apart as things get serious with Sophie’s Wall Street beau. Frances counts on getting work at the big Christmas dance show, but she just can’t seem to impress the troupe’s director. Over the next few months Frances changes apartments, visits her folks out West, takes a weekend Paris trip, and even returns to her old college as an RA while she tries plot a clife ourse while sailing through her late twenties.

Hard to believe it was three years ago Gerwig broke through the low-budget indies (including a few in the “mumblecore” subset) with Baumbach’s GREENBERG as Ben Stiller’s love interest. The big studios didn’t seem to know what to do with her in NO STRINGS ATTACHED, TO ROME WITH LOVE, and the disastrous ARTHUR remake alongside Russell Brand. Going back to the lower budgets didn’t help with the dismal LOLA VERSUS and DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. But now with a role she helped create Gerwig is back on track. Sure she’s still quirky, but not aggravating so as she was in those last two flicks. Frances still makes bad decisions like her spur-of-the-moment Paris flight, but we still root for her to get her, uh, stuff together. Brit Marling may be hot on her heels, but Gerwig really captures the spirit of the “indie” it girl title established by Parker Posey and other great actresses. Sumner is terrific as the woman who seems to really have it together, but still yearns for those free-wheeling days with her best pal. Frances and Sophie’s unplanned reunion in the film’s last act is quite surprising and moving. Grace Gummer is also solid as fellow dancer who takes Frances into her home, much to her aggravation. Frances thinks she can “play fight” with her in the park like Sophie, but the reserved, aloof Rachel will have none of that schoolgirl silliness. Gummer’s annoyed stares when Frances crashes a family dinner are priceless. Adam Driver is very good as one of Frances’s male roomies who fancies himself as quite the ladies man even after being rebuffed by Frances. Michael Zegan is the other roomie, Benji, who seems to be a kindred brother to Frances as they both believe themselves “undateable”. In a clever scene Benji aspires to write for TV’s “Saturday Night Live”, but really has a great idea for a third Gremlins flick. Michael Esper is very funny as Frances’s obtuse boyfriend (are we breaking up or not?) and Gerwig’s real-life Mom and Pop are charming as Frances’s kept-in-the-dark West Coast parents. This is a wonderful supporting cast that compliments Gerwig’s title character performance.

Director Baumbach makes wonderful use of the locations. France is almost otherworldly as is the brief visit to the sunny hazy locales of Frances’s family. But the film’s main source of energy is the big apple. The gorgeous black and white cinematography gives the NYC neighborhoods and parks an almost silver glow, often suggesting a nostalgia for modern times (accented by the pounding opening chords of David Bowie’s “Modern Love”). This look is never oft-putting, but pulls us into the characters’ sometimes nomadic lives. What really makes this film magical, along with its unique look, is the smart script by the director and star. Yes, there’s the drudgery of trying to make ends meet, but there’s also the small victories like finally getting that tax rebate check and splurging on a big dinner (topped off by an exhilarating mad dash to find an ATM). Dialogue is clever without getting too jokey or cutesy. One highlight is an exchange at Rachel’s family dinner when Frances announces her weekend Paris trip will be put on a credit card she just got in the mail (“Oh Frances, that’s how those companies get you” “I know! I watch documentaries!”). In the midst of big loud Summer action blockbusters, the saga of an aimless twenty-something woman who doesn’t need to be rescued by a man provides a most enjoyable time at the cinema. You’ll be glad you let FRANCES HA crash with you.

4.5 Out of 5

FRANCES HA screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre

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Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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