Before Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach’s signature films for me are Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale.
I particularly admire The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s blistering portrait of a literary couple (Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels) whose marital battles damage their two sons. Although that film was so emotionally searing that it was difficult to watch, I thought it was extremely good.
Margot at the Wedding also deals with a dysfunctional family but does not seem quite as compelling and narratively cohesive as The Squid and the Whale. Margot at the Wedding stars Jennifer Jason Leigh (then Baumbach’s wife), an actor who deserves to be better known to audiences than she is, along Nicole Kidman and Jack Black, who are well enough known without any commentary from me.
Perhaps because Greta Gerwig, who stars as Frances, co-wrote this screenplay with Baumbach, there is a bit of lightness to Frances Ha that replaces the cruelty of characters in the other two films.
Gerwig is an indie film darling, and she co-stars in another of Baumbach’s films, one which didn’t work very well for me. In Greenberg, Ben Stiller plays a troubled man who housesits for his brother and falls for his brother’s personal assistant, played by Gerwig.
Compared to Greenberg (the character and the film), Frances is a breath of fresh air.
Basically, this is the story of a 27-year-old aspiring dancer on the pathway to adulthood. Though some may be tempted to compare the characters and scenarios to Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls (and Adam Driver who plays Hannah’s boyfriend in the series does have a supporting role here), I think any similarities are cursory.
Sure, both are set in New York and include some privileged kids playing at becoming adults, but Frances is likeable and the film’s references to classics of French New Wave cinema (in style, tone, music) are irresistible.
Greta is socially and physically awkward, which is troublesome for a dancer. She is all of these things: vulnerable, sweet, myopic, stubborn, impulsive, selectively smart, demure, bold, optimistic, engaging, maddening, trusting, dateable, undateable, and lots of other things, too, that well-educated, emerging men and women in their 20s are as they try to find a career that is worthy of their image of themselves.
But, most of all, she is watchable and believable so that every moment in the film feels real.