FRANCES HA IS a rare gem of a movie that manages to capture a genuine sense of real people living real lives and sounding like real people. Director Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg”, “The Squid and the Whale”) is one of the new school of Indie New York directors who delivers the kind of naturalism of approach that lulls you into the feeling that the camera isn’t there and that Greta Gerwig (the eponymous Frances) isn’t really acting at all.
The movie focuses unsparingly on the life of Frances, a young, semi-employed, generally penniless, often awkward, embarrassing, charming, determined choreographer. We follow her relationships – friendships, not romances – her dreams, her successes and failures. And, with incredible precision in the scenes he selects to build his narrative, Baumbach and the brilliant Gerwig help us form an understanding of and great empathy with this less than heroic, but thoroughly endearing character.
Unlike the typical Hollywood fare which tends to be strongly plot driven with a few character touches thrown in to keep our interest, “Frances Ha” is all character driven; the vignettes of her life that we see, like a peek into a series of moving snapshots, only loosely add up to a ‘story’.
Essentially her quest to find permanence in a career of dance, which is about as chancy a career as acting or ‘art’, and her strong bond with her life-long friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner -best known for her part as Francesca in “The Borgias”) are the threads that knit the narrative together. But, like life, it’s a very loose narrative – it wanders here and there as it builds to a quiet, fanfare-free resolution.
Frances’ character approaches life with such a carefree naiveté and sense of joy that there is a delightful absence of strum und drang. Where other movies could so easily have drifted into drama and angst, this one manages to engage its audience without the need to resort to cheap tricks and theatrical angst.
For this, credit must also be paid to Baumbach as writer. The dialog feels real – it’s how people talk; the relationships in the story feel like real relationships, not ‘set-up’s’ to make a greater point.
The movie is shot in black and white, which felt initially a little bit self-consciously arty (apparently Baumbach is a strong fan of Woody Allen… and there is a lightness of touch and tone that is certainly reminiscent of this other great New York director), but soon enough becomes invisible. Baumbach explained that he shot it in black and white to “boil it down to its barest bones…to create an immediate history and a kind of instant nostalgia”.
That’s probably a lot more pretentious that the resulting movie.