Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Frances Ha - Dir. Noah Baumbach

(This review contains spoilers)

Films about middle class white people and their first world problems are so difficult to get right; the audience’s tolerance of the characters is perilously low to begin with and one false move could lose their sympathy. Woody Allen has both won and lost this particular battle many times over his career. Frances Ha is most definitely a victory for creative team Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; a charming but unmistakable sad film about a floundering woman approaching her thirties.

Frances’ world is sent spinning when her best friend and flat mate Sophie decides to move to a trendier part of New York with another friend. Frances can’t afford to keep their flat and has an uncertain future as a modern dancer. She’s fallen into an early-to-mid life crisis; just about holding on to her teenage years with proper adulthood fast approaching. She’s reached the stage where she should have a clear path of where she wants to go in life. She hasn’t, but everyone around her has.

Sophie is moving up in the world with her partner Patch, temporary flat mate Benji is writing and Lev has rich parents, which means he can afford to live as ‘an artist’. One excruciating dinner party scene sees Frances desperately trying to fit in with wealthy lawyers and young mothers. This results in Frances embarking on an ill-advised spontaneous trip to Paris, showing to the others that she too can live their lifestyle. The trip is a disaster; she oversleeps and her spontaneity means that old friend Abby is not in Paris to meet with her. When Abby finally gets her messages and invites her over, it’s too late; Frances has already returned to New York. Be more organised Frances, and less spontaneous.

All of these tragic developments are thankfully played out with an impeccable sense of hilarity and frivolity. Whilst Frances may not be entirely likeable, she is engaging enough to make us care about her woes. She’s quirky without being irksome, silly rather than stupid. She’s neither super rich nor poor and she possesses some talent as a dancer, but sadly not enough. This mediocrity makes her endearing. You’re also meant to be laughing at her; she’s a grown woman flailing in the shallow end of the pool.

Frances returns home to Sacramento for Christmas and a break from the bustling New York. These scenes crucially show how she can function in the safety of her hometown.  She’s not socially inept; it’s just that her goofiness doesn’t sit well with New York. New York is a city steeped in cultural history and attracts the very best writers, artists and musicians of each generation. For every success story, there are thousands who don’t make it. Sadly Frances isn’t exceptional in a city where she needs to be. She’s out of her depth, but just hasn’t realised it yet.

Frances may be aimless but the film is anything but; Frances Ha is the story of a twenty something New Yorker slowly letting go of her youthful ambitions and starting a less fulfilling life. By the end of the film, Frances has realised that her time is up; she’s abandoned the dream of becoming a professional dancer. It’s not all doom and gloom, there’s hope in the air. She’s taken an administrative job her old dance school, begun choreographing her own shows and has a new flat. It’s a more stable existence but she’d reached a time in her life when that’s what she needed. It may not be what she wanted from life, but she seems to be content with her lot. There’s also the suggestion of a relationship with Benji, who approaches Frances after her first dance show. Perhaps he too has taken stock of his life, deciding that writing Gremlins 3 is not what he should be doing.

More importantly, Frances has her best friend back after Sophie abandons her new life in Japan. Sophie was active and embraced a new stage in her life without deciding that it was what she truly wanted. Frances had to hit rock bottom before facing up to the hard truths and making a change.

So yes, sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed do it; but it’s up to you to make that decision and ensure that you can find some happiness in what you end up doing.

Frances Ha is available on DVD/Blu Ray and is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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