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.

Greta Gerwig (Frances), Michael Zegen (Benji) and Adam Driver (Lev) in Francis Ha
Image: IFC Films

Greta Gerwig (Frances), Michael Zegen (Benji) and Adam Driver (Lev) in Francis Ha

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.

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The film is existential in the most whimsical, un-heavy handed sense of the word. Largely a collection of vignettes and conversations surrounding "Oh Frances!" foibles, the film is more about entertaining than philosophizing, though it does both well. Think Woody Allen with more texting and Millennial humor (such as moment when Frances remarks that smoking indoors makes her feel like "a bad mother in 1987").

Shot in black and white with an airy, guerilla feel, Frances Ha is also a clear homage to the French New Wave, an important film movement in the history of art cinema. Baumbach's choice of using composer Georges Delerue—who scored such sixties classics as Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim and Shoot the Piano Player—reinforces the Nouvelle Vague aesthetic, as does the "wandering around the city" motif (both New York and Paris), the "two guys and a girl" dynamic (see Godard's Band of Outsiders), and the film's play with "realism" (Greta Gerwig's actual parents, and their actual home, play themselves).

The retro visuals—juxtaposed with the things like cell phones and blogs—underscore the film's interest in ephemerality. Very little is permanent in Frances' world. Her roommate and best friend from college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), has a new boyfriend and is moving on to sexier things (a job in Tokyo!). But without reliable income, her ballet career having never quite taken off, Frances has to live on friends' couches, or friends of friends' couches, another victim of the "what did this degree get me?" plague sweeping America's recession-impacted youth.

The film evokes this in a variety of ways. It highlights the actual street addresses she lives in throughout New York City. Frances visits the storage unit where her nascent estate (dorm room vestiges and hand-me-down furniture) waits expectantly for the moment it can be useful in furnishing a more permanent dwelling. She explores Paris on a whim, tromps through forests during a stint as a summer ballet camp counselor, and visits her parents' home back in Sacramento over the holidays. Among other things, the film succeeds in stirring up those Sehnsucht pangs for geographical or spiritual "home" which tend to be present in the art that moves us most.

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As is true for all of us, the only constant in Frances' life is herself. With her closest friend suddenly out of her life, her parents (supportive and lovely as they are) on the other side of the country, and acquaintances and bosses too self-occupied to care, Frances must learn to soldier on as an isolated army of one. If the film weren't so funny, it'd be unbearably sad. Baumbach and Gerwig create a palpable sense of loneliness that resonates with a generation said to be "more connected" than any prior. Frances Ha shows that the opposite may in fact be true.

There is a sense that technology's flattening of space and time has made it harder, not easier, to be present in a particular place or in a particular moment. "Social" networks may in fact be degrading the social experience rather than enriching it. iPhones and other iThings condition us to the "i" habits of interior, individualistic living.

At perhaps the low point in Frances Ha, we see Frances alone in Paris, trying but failing to use her phone to contact and meet up with a friend who lives there. Only after Frances is back home does she get the message that her friend in Paris is indeed available and would love to meet up. So much for technology facilitating instant connectivity.

Frances Ha is characterized by these sorts of almost connections: people missing each other in their haste to be about their own business. It's a corollary to the cellphone walker syndrome: throngs of harried people with their heads down, glued to a screen, paying no heed to the bodies brushing up against them on the subway or streets, let alone the beauty of the sky, the buildings, the world all around. Frances Ha only occasionally mentions technology directly, yet it keenly perceives the way it shapes contemporary life.

In the end, Frances comes to peace with all of this and does what anyone must do lest they languish in despair: she accepts the inevitability of change. She persists. She finds a part to play in the theater of life, even if it's less glamorous a role than she imagined it might be. She becomes a bit more than just a first name vagabond, even if a full name legacy is still a distant dream.

The Family Corner

Frances Ha is rated R entirely for language, including plenty of f-words and all the rest. There is no violence, nudity or sex in the film, though there is frequent talk about sex. Characters are also frequently smoking and drinking.

Frances Ha
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (For sexual references and language)
Directed By
Noah Baumbach
Run Time
1 hour 26 minutes
Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver
Theatre Release
May 17, 2013 by IFC Films
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