Frances Ha: Woody Allen For the New Generation?

Frances Ha (2012)
Director: Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha, the latest film from director Noah Baumbach, whose earlier films include Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, can be seen as a revisiting of territory made familiar by Woody Allen decades ago.

The fact that Frances Ha was shot in black and white and explores the lives of young and artsy New Yorkers makes the Woody Allen comparison inevitable. Yet this and other Baumbach films also show other influences, such as Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and even perhaps Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. The latter might seem a stretch, but in that iconic indie film from 1983, Jarmusch portrays aimless pre-hipsters in Brooklyn who, among other things, engage in cryptic conversations and have the tendency to take pointless journeys. Stranger Than Paradise was also a black and white film, and even has a character who wears the kind of hat common in today’s hipsters (who no doubt all saw that film).

None of this is meant to imply that Frances Ha is merely a derivative work or one that simply retreads familiar territory. Like Quentin Tarrantino (a very different sort of filmmaker overall), Baumbach has the gift of being able to present familiar themes in a manner that is completely refreshing and entertaining. Frances Ha is no exception. This film was co-written by Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig, who plays Frances.

It’s a little difficult to describe the plot of Frances Ha, as it’s mainly a series of scenes and montages. Some have identified it as a look at close female friendships, and how they can almost border on romance. At one point, Frances says to her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), “We’re like an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” While the relationship between the two twenty-something women takes up a lot of screen time, the film is really broader in scope. It’s an exploration of a contemporary bohemian lifestyle that must come to terms with economic hardships.

Frances, unlike some of her friends and roommates, is struggling to support herself as a dancer. At one point she moves in with a pair of well-off kids who say things like, “We’re thinking of hiring a maid; it only costs $400 a month.” Yet, even though she has trouble paying her rent, she stubbornly refuses to take a receptionist job at the dance studio where she teaches part time because it’s not in line with her creative aspirations.

Frances Ha will annoy some people, because there is no effort to make the protagonist or her friends universally likable or accessible. In fact, if you are not young, hip, educated and/or urban, you may find these characters as alien as members of a tribe on a continent you’ve only seen on the Discovery Channel. In this manner, Baumbach follows in the footsteps of Woody Allen, whose Upper East Side elitist professionals were never meant to be representative of America at large.

I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Baumbach’s films, and Frances Ha is no exception. They are driven by characters who, while not always rational or likable, are complex enough to be believable. While some of the dialogue seems slightly over-the-top in its self-consciousness (you might catch a whiff of Portlandia here as well), some people actually do talk this way. Frances herself, however, does not come across as pretentious or overly hip; she is more the product of a certain milieu that compels certain ways of talking and thinking.

Unlike many other indie films that wallow in quirkiness, Frances Ha does not go overboard trying to convince you that its characters are adorable. If you end up liking Frances, its because you accept her as a person who somehow transcends stereotypes.

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