Though I hesitate to do so, I’m going to start this review by saying a few words about the most over-discussed show on television: “Girls.” I wouldn’t say I hate Lena Dunham’s HBO series, but I’m also not afraid to say that after watching it for half a season I saw no reason to continue watching. The show is largely about a bunch of unlikable twenty-somethings who are doing nothing noteworthy with their lives, which would be alright if the show was actually funny, but it isn’t. Almost all of the enjoyment that people seem to have for the show comes from being able to personally relate to it, and there’s nothing about that show’s cast of narcissistic, over-privileged, New York hipsters that I relate to on any level. The thing is, I could say almost all the same things about the films of Noah Baumbach, and yet I’ve mostly liked all of them. I suppose that what differentiates his strongest film to date, The Squid and the Whale, is that it openly pokes fun at the pretensions of this class of people and his 2010 film Greenberg was different because it focused on an aging sad-sack (which is a character type I can much more readily relate to); but it’s a lot harder to find a simple explanation for what makes his latest film, Frances Ha, different than that stupid fucking over-rated TV show that no one on the internet can shut up about.
As is often the case with films of this “genre,” there isn’t really a plot here so much as a set of characters. The main character is of course Frances (Greta Gerwig), a twenty-seven year old woman who aspires to be a modern dancer and who lives in a New York (where else?) apartment with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). When Sophie decides to move from the apartment, Frances needs to reconsider her situation. That’s it. There’s no high concept or anything. This is a character study in its purest sense.
So what makes watching this film a more pleasant experience than watching “Girls?” Well for one thing, Frances Ha is 85 minutes long rather than two seasons and counting, which seems like a much more reasonable amount of time to spend contemplating the first-world problems that these kind of characters tend to face. That goes a long way, but another key difference is that Frances is an altogether more sympathetic character than the various characters on “Girls.” She’s not nearly as wealthy and privileged as the characters in these kind of movies usually are and for that matter she clearly comes from less of a place of privilege than a lot of the people around her. Much of the film’s drama actually comes from the fact that she’s kind of a poser. She’s like a modern day Lily Bart who’s desperately trying to live a lifestyle that’s only really realistic for people who come from more money than she does. Money isn’t her only problem though; all throughout the film she never quite seems able to fit in with all the hipsters around her. She’s affable enough and generally doesn’t put people off too much, but there’s always a certain awkwardness in all her social interactions.
Frances Ha has been filmed in black and white, which seems like a bit of an odd choice given that this is a film that’s set distinctly in the present. In interviews, Baumbach has said that the choices was made as a tribute to Woody Allen’s use of the medium in various films, but that doesn’t exactly ring true to me. Allen’s reason for shooting Manhattan in black and white was to make the squalid New York of the 1970s look like the romantic New York of an earlier era, and there’s no particular indication that Baumbach is trying to do something like that here. Instead this particular brand of black and white reminded me of an earlier generation of American independent films like She’s Gotta Have It and Stranger Than Paradise which were shot on 16mm black and white stock largely to save money. I wonder if Baumbach, who is in some way a veteran of this earlier generation of indie filmmakers, chose to shoot the film this way to differentiate it from all the other films about 20-something hipsters that are being made by younger “mumblecore” directors, who tend to rely on indistinct digital photography.
I’m no hater of black and white, on the contrary I think it can be very beautiful and in general I’m of the belief that shooting any given film in black and white is a perfectly reasonable choice and that filmmakers shouldn’t have to justify, but I don’t know about this one. In many ways it’s actually kind of jarring to see a film that’s so actively trying to be “hip” and “now” being shot this way. And yet I can completely sympathize with his desire to do something to make the film stand out a little more because even though I did end up enjoying it eventually and do think it’s better than a lot of other similar films, it is at the end of the day merely a trifle and I’m only barely going to recommend it. Then again, the mileage for a film like this is going to vary widely based on how much someone is going to relate to it and while I did find some things to relate to here, I’m never going to be as in touch with someone like this as I was with the title character of Greenberg. But that’s just me, I’m sure that there is a small contingency of people who are going to relate to Frances a hell of a lot more than I did, and I suspect they will like this film a hell of a lot more.
*** out of Four