Frances Ha / Noah Baumbach / 2013 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Greta Gerwig; Affably casual and emotionally honest
Side Effects: Occasionally over-scripted; Tone of digital B&W images

Greta Gerwig

[Frances Ha plays at the New York Film Festival on September 30th, October 4th and October 10th.]

There’s often a whiff of “1st world problems” in the subgenre of the urban quarter-life crisis dramedy that can be a bit hard to shake. In Frances Ha, a young woman struggles with her relationships with men and her best girlfriends, while also halfheartedly searching for the drive to take the next step into maturity. We know Frances will turn out OK—she’s too smart and plucky not to—but her’s are still relateable and recognizable real-world problems, and I think Frances Ha has the sincerity and conviction to speak to a lot of people.

Between Frances Ha and The Master, the dilemma of rootlessness and apathy seems to be in the air these days, and while the films are tonally very different, both are even-handed and empathetic to their heroes set adrift. Here, director Noah Baumbach has placed Frances’s journey atop a bed of comforting nostalgia, like a warm blanket keeping you from your Sunday morning chores. Shot in black and white, the film’s low-budget, on-location aesthetic takes a cue from the French New Wave, a movement the film often references. It also manages to maintain a spirit of whimsy that is refreshingly grounded in the film’s endearing protagonist. Frances is book-smart and witty, exuberant yet undirected, and Baumbach manages to capture a complete view of the character, good and bad, through his very subjective, cinematically loaded style.

But at least half of the credit also goes to co-writer and star Greta Gerwig, who graces nearly every shot of the film. It’s a great performance because it doesn’t feel like a performance at all. She’s incredibly light and natural, but she, like the film she’s in, has the vision to imagine her character in depth, in the context of her specific life and within her specific milieu. That milieu could broadly and imprecisely be defined as “hipster”, which in itself may turn some viewers off. But while Gerwig has the nuance to transcend this label, some supporting performances do resort to generalities. The film’s clever, literate dialogue (someone calls an apartment very “aware of itself”) can be difficult to perform this casually, but when it works, so does the film. It’s funny, inviting and heartfelt in all the right places.

If you’ve ever been disheartened to have to answer that condescending question “so, what do you do these days?” then Frances Ha might speak to your 1st world problems too.