Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Frances Ha: Engaging portrait of an unfinished soul

Frances Ha (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang

Slowly but steadily, Greta Gerwig has been crafting wry and thoughtful portraits of today’s self-absorbed millennials ... and, more specifically, those who suffer from what has been branded Failure to Launch.

Mourning the apparent loss of her long-time best friend, Frances (Greta Gerwig) drowns
her sorrows in a good meal with Lev (Adam Driver), a sympathetic guy-pal who offers
the sort of superficial warmth that can obscure emotional pain ... if only briefly. What
Frances hasn't yet learned, though, is that true healing must come from within.
We’ve seen hints in her stand-out supporting roles in the remake of Arthur and Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love. Despite having (I assume) minimal creative control over those projects, and being limited to what those directors and scripts allowed, Gerwig nonetheless delivered an irresistible blend of quirky charm and wary vulnerability. The classic Greta Gerwig character — assuming it’s not too early to brand her in such a manner — always seems slightly out of phase with our world, her expression of cautious bewilderment suggesting that, to her, society and interpersonal relationships always are mildly out of focus.

Gerwig delivered a richer example of such a young woman in last year’s Lola Versus, but her often amiable performance was undone by a frequently cruel and tin-eared script that forced too much self-destructive behavior on a title character who clearly should have known better.

Cue the arrival of Frances Ha, a much more satisfying character study of a wayward New Yorker who — despite good intentions and often painful sincerity — just can’t get her act together. Gerwig had a strong hand in this 27-year-old woman’s development, having shared scripting credit with director Noah Baumbach. (They also worked together on 2010’s unsatisfying Greenberg.) The result feels far more credibly authentic than the erratic nitwit in Lola Versus.

Frances is the sort of forever flustered individual who will promise to do something, and then let the opportunity slip by; or will insist that she won’t do something, but then will. She’s simultaneously endearing and deeply frustrating, and numerous scenes in this film are uncomfortable and unsettling, as we worry over whether she’ll miss another promising opportunity, or yield to another impetuous, ill-advised decision.

She’s tone-deaf during social occasions, forever saying the wrong thing to the wrong people: not because she’s cruel or thoughtless, but mostly because she simply doesn’t pay attention to relationship cues, whether casual or formal. She’s much too self-absorbed: but, again, not in an unpleasant manner. She’s just ... well ... unfinished, somehow. And helpless to do anything about it.

But Gerwig’s performance is so endearing, and so genuinely sweet, that we can’t help forgiving Frances her many shortcomings (even as we groan over them). Watching her flail during an effort to describe wanting that “magic moment” between two soul mates — when eyes lock from opposite ends of a room, and a quick smile of acknowledgment cements the sort of bond that neither time nor God could disrupt — is poetry in motion. It’s a breathtaking, all-in scene: utterly mesmerizing, for Gerwig’s intensity. Watch how she works every square millimeter of her expressive face, from lips and chin to eyebrows.

We meet Frances earlier, during a montage of sorts, which establishes the BFF bond she shares with longtime gal pal Sophie (Mickey Sumner). The two share everything, from future dreams and snarky observations about the guys who wander in and out of their lives, to cigarettes smoked while leaning outside open windows, and hilariously crazed “mock fights” that feel like some sort of friendship performance art.

Frances works as a dancer, oblivious to the passing years during which she has failed to advance from apprentice to principal member of the company run by a kindly director — Broadway stalwart Charlotte d’Amboise, as Colleen — who must have been dropping hints for awhile. Naturally, Frances has failed to perceive them. Why worry about the future when she has both a steady job and constant companion?

“I’ve always felt that dance is a potent metaphor for things that have an expiration date,” Gerwig comments, in this film’s press notes. It’s a perceptive observation that deftly personifies Frances, whose comfortable but somewhat messy life — she lets clothes pile up where they fall (an obvious but no less apt metaphor) — is rent asunder when Sophie suddenly announces that her seemingly casual relationship with Patch (Patrick Heusinger) has turned serious, and she’ll be moving in — and moving on — with him.

Frances, viewing this as a betrayal, genuinely damages her friendship with Sophie. While we flinch, groan and try to crawl beneath the theater seat.

Worse yet, in one of those celestial bursts of bad timing, Colleen gently tells Frances that she won’t have a spot in this year’s Christmas production ... ergo, a serious jolt to the income stream. That means no apartment, because she certainly can’t afford the rent without Sophie’s contribution.

After bemoaning her fate over dinner with a sympathetic friend — Adam Driver, as Lev — she follows him home and shares an awkward evening with his roommate, Benji (Michael Zegen). The atmosphere is laced with sexual tension, although it never quite gels.

Wanting to be kind — actually, Frances instills that in people, who instinctively want to help this wounded sparrow — Lev and Benji offer to let her share their apartment. We can see, from their expressions, that it’s one of those gestures intended to be magnanimous, although the guys probably hope she doesn’t accept. But she does, of course, and this act sets the pattern that defines both the film and Frances’ life.

The subsequent narrative charts her course from one apartment to the next — including a stopover in Sacramento with her parents, during the Christmas holidays — and we come to understand that Frances will remain “unfinished” until she truly settles down. Merely “moving” isn’t the same as moving forward, and undefined wanderlust merely postpones the inevitable.

Speaking of that Sacramento sojourn, it’s a brief but emotionally rich montage — kudos to Baumbach here, for the way he truly nails both the setting and its family dynamic — that draws rich, naturalistic performances from Gerwig’s real-life parents (Christine and Gordon Gerwig), cast as Frances’ mother and father. The entire sequence conveys solid, middle-class warmth: all the stability and heartfelt emotional depth that Frances can neither express nor find, back in New York.

When — visit over — she rides the Sacramento Airport escalator up to her boarding gate, glancing back at her parents as they recede from view, her features again speak volumes: a cheery, superficial smile to let them know that she’s all right (an outright lie, of course), which then morphs into the nervous and even scared realization that she’s once again on her own.

(Sacramento-area residents will particularly enjoy this sequence, since Baumbach actually shot in and around California’s capital city.)

I had a friend, long ago, who couldn’t relate to women his own age. His “solution” was to find progressively younger companions, which merely exacerbated the problem as the age divide increased. Frances does something similar, moving backwards through the usual sequence of post-education living arrangements, as if seeking answers in a metaphoric past.

We find her, as the film opens, in the stable arrangement with Sophie. In the normal course of things, when Sophie moves into her more personal relationship, Frances might do the same. Instead, she retreats to the sort of multiple-roomie environment (with Lev and Benji) that ordinarily would have preceded her digs with Sophie. There’s also an impulsive and financially rash sojourn to Paris — the equivalent of the “summer abroad” that many university students enjoy — and, finally, the ultimate indignity: She moves back to her alma mater, Vassar College, for a summer job.

She’s flailing, and our heart breaks. With every awkward action and encounter — now with “kids” she cannot relate to — Gerwig’s mournful bearing reveals that, on some level, Frances knows this isn’t the right path. Answers — and satisfaction — only come when we move forward.

Then, too, life always throws curves ... so we’re therefore not surprised when Sophie pops up again.

Sumner is exquisitely delicate as Sophie: restrained “maturity” to Frances’ often reckless spontaneity. It’s always a tougher assignment, being the one who absorbs, reflects and responds to a more baroque acting companion. But Sophie isn’t exclusively a calming influence; she has her own issues, and Sumner excels during the moments where we clearly see that Sophie wishes for some of the “good friend sympathy” that she so often provides her best friend.

Driver and Zegen are an ironic hoot as Lev and Benji. They’re another subset of the failure-to-launch generation: young men playing at being “on their own,” when in fact they still sponge off their parents for just about everything.

Grace Gummer is memorably chill as Rachel, one of the principal dancers in Colleen’s company, and another brief apartment stop along Frances’ journey toward self-awareness.

This story’s ultimate message (marvelously encapsulated in the final scene, which explains this film’s title) is that when life doesn’t offer the options we think we want or deserve, when opportunity seems smaller or less significant than we expect, we make ourselves fit — make the best of what is available — and move on. Chance favors the prepared, and opportunities as-yet unimagined wait around the next corner.

One hopes most millennials have their acts together better than Frances, as so hopelessly — but always beguilingly — played by Gerwig. At the same time, life’s answers come through growth, which also is the stuff of engaging drama. Frances Ha has left many lingering memories, all of them pleasant, many of them thoughtful. You can’t ask for much more from a film.

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