For 85 and a half of Frances Ha's 86-minute runtime, we only know Frances (Greta Gerwig) by first name. Which is fitting, because as endearingly eccentric and memorable as Frances may be, she's still just another face in the crowd—one of hordes of 27-year-olds trying to make their mark in the big city.
But Frances is not one to buy into her supposed insignificance. Like many in her generation, she's convinced that her dreams are within reach (for her, to be part of a prestigious dance company), and she will not let anything convince her otherwise.
Directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid & the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg), a director who likes stories about awkward people who flounder on the margins, Frances Ha is at first glance a 90-minute ode to a charmingly hapless exemplar of the "failure to launch" phenomenon. Small in scale and (deceivingly) in scope, Frances Ha nevertheless presents something bigger than itself. Co-written by and starring the very talented Gerwig — ingénue of the "mumblecore" movement—Frances Ha is one of those inadvertently generation-defining films that riffs on the zeitgeist in enlightening ways.
Ostensibly the story of one young woman's painful/funny exploits in contemporary New York (HBO's Girls is in some ways a raunchier cousin), Frances Ha hones in perfectly on the "quarterlife crisis" phenomenon of well-educated college graduates. They flail around in that awkward, unsettled place where liberal arts fantasyland collides messily with the realities—jobs, rent, bills—of surviving adulthood. It's that time in life when daydreaming about reading Proust in a Parisian café while Serge Gainsbourg plays on vinyl only gets you so far.
For Frances and her cohort of hipsterish twentysomethings, living it up in a vibrant, exciting place like Brooklyn—even if the only way to do so is to cobble together income from odd jobs—is more important than fast-tracking things like careers and families. Often, the result is a life full of commoditized experiences (concerts, parties, Facebook friends, three-hour brunches) that feels simultaneous full and empty. It's a never-dull parade of irony, cigarettes and pop anachronism (David Bowie figures prominently in the film's soundtrack) that tries but can never quite transcend the banalities of everyday life.
Things like impermanence. Growing up. Responsibility. Change. The film's whip-smart, often hilarious dialogue and staccato editing carry it along at a brisk tempo, treating the passage of time as a comically relentless, indifferent force that never pauses for "find yourself" contemplation, let alone punch lines. For Frances, the cursed pace of life's practical concerns is in tension with her exuberant spirit. She'd rather run through the city with an iPod full of Bowie, or chill in the park with her best friend, than confront the realities of adulthood.