You might say Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha is a love story. Just be advised: the love story is going on behind the camera.
Baumbach, a filmmaker who has previously seemed to enjoy the challenge of making us care about difficult people (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) here makes it easy to bask in the lovable eccentricity of 27-year-old Frances (Greta Gerwig), a dancer and would-be choreographer adrift in New York City.
Part of this likely has to do with the story behind the film: Baumbach divorced his former collaborator, Jennifer Jason Leigh, in 2010 and is now with Gerwig, with whom he worked in Greenberg.
It would be cynical to suggest this movie is an exercise in justification. On the other hand, wow, Gerwig really does carry the movie on the strengths of her considerable, hard-to-define charm.
Like Annie Hall before her, the awkward-funny-beautiful Gerwig registers as a neurotic's dream girl. But as scripted by Gerwig and Baumbach, Frances proceeds as if Annie Hall didn't really need the Woody Allen character. Primarily, this is a movie about the desperate challenges that predicate coming in to your own.
Frances is living a relatively happy existence in Brooklyn with her roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting), whom she adores in a latent template of a younger girl's BFF. But Sophie wants to move on by moving in with her boyfriend in cool Tribeca. Frances is jettisoned into a series of changing residences, moving in with a pair of cute and funny hipsters, Lev (Adam Driver from the HBO series Girls) and Benji (Michael Zegen).
But her dancing career is stalling, a promised gig for a Christmas show falls through and Frances seems to be perilously close to moving back in with her parents (played by Gerwig's real parents) back in Sacramento.
This, by the way, is not the fate-worse-than-death we've seen in other films. On a holiday visit, Frances visibly enjoys being with her family, a dynamic that runs counter to just about all of Baumbach's other films.
Back in the Big Apple, her professional decline continues. A compulsive weekend trip to Paris ravages her dwindling resources. A job at her old alma mater promises to be humiliating, but Frances rises above it.
It's not a conventional story arc, but Frances is not a conventional heroine.
Gerwig doesn't get by on charm alone. Baumbach infuses her image with a classic-film lustre, shooting her in glamorous black and white and setting her actions to the previously enjoyed soundtracks of George Delerue, the go-to composer for the French New Wave.
It adds up to a film that is an enjoyable, subtle alternative to the noisy, apocalyptic movies that have crowded the marketplace. It's as smart, funny and tender as a cosmopolitan character study can be.
Mostly, it registers as a cinematic love letter to Greta Gerwig signed by Noah Baumbach.
Faced with a choice between that and The Lone Ranger, I'll take it.
It's a tribute to Gerwig's performance, somehow both clumsy and elegant, that she wins us over despite ourselves, that we come to appreciate her aimlessness in a goal-oriented society.
-- Rick Groen, Globe and Mail
The movie's a love letter to an actress and her character, but by the end you may feel like an intervention is more in order.
-- Ty Burr, Boston Globe
Occasionally inspired, frequently charming and always watchable.
-- Godfrey Cheshire, Chicago Sun-Times
Frances Ha is a refreshingly contemporary film, exploring 20-something hipster ennui with accuracy, empathy and humour.
-- T'Cha Dunlevy, Montreal Gazette
Frances Ha is a movie that will either remind you of what it was (or, if you're lucky, is) like to be young, or it'll make you feel really old. Middle-aged, at least.
-- Marc Mohan, Oregonian
Late-blooming 20-somethings have never been so perfectly captured -- and Gerwig has never been more appealing -- than in this funny, tender, life-affirming movie.
-- Rafer Guzman, Newsday