It’s not hard in the first minutes of Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” to feel we’ve popped up in some episode of “Girls” — if was directed by Francois Truffaut. Here we have the New York setting, the trust fundies living three to an apartment, the casual and blunt sexual talk from 20-something women, and even an appearance from Adam Driver. But as “Frances Ha” continues, we get something more idiosyncratic and charming.
Written in collaboration with its star, mumblecore doyen Greta Gerwig, “Frances Ha” charts its 27-year-old protagonist as she gets dumped by her best friend and has to figure out what to do with her life.
The premise isn’t too far from that of other Baumbach films like “Greenberg” or “The Squid and the Whale,” but whereas those films often felt like holding patterns, “Frances Ha” is bustling with a nervous comic energy, as evidenced by its opening montage that sets up Frances’ relationship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), and continued through short set pieces leading up to Sophie moving in with a girl she doesn’t really like in order to live in a part of New York she does. Frances, a modern dance understudy past her prime with little income, moves into an apartment with two guys (neither spark romantic interest), then in with her parents, then to Paris, then eventually back to where she needs to be. Because of Ms. Gerwig’s odd choices, her slapstick movements, and radiant face, she remains an empathetic character throughout. When events happen, we feel surprise right alongside Frances.
It’s especially in this empathy that separates “Frances Ha” from the title characters in “Girls,” which often offers the characters up for derision or debasement. While Frances may be clueless in a few scenes (she seems the last to know Sophie is going to move to Japan with her “douche” boyfriend, Patch, while she sits at a dinner party with several strangers), she’s clueless in the way a lot of us are, not always privy to the workings of everybody else’s mind. We never get the sense that Mr. Baumbach or Ms. Gerwig are laughing at their character, and though I expected the film to deliver a humbling, even cruel twist at some point, it never does.
The film looks beautiful in its black and white photography, shot by Sam Levy, quoting both Jean-Luc Godard and Mr. Truffaut, as well as “Manhattan” (you can’t shoot New York in monochrome and not do so). Mr. Baumbach also uses music sparingly but to great effect: Frances’ dance/sprint down Manhattan to the thump of Bowie’s “Modern Love”, her sojourn in Paris set to Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner” and its careful deployment of George Delerue, Mr. Truffaut’s composer.
“Frances Ha” has the effervescence of a new director, instead of one in his 17th year, and that has to come down to Ms. Gerwig for creating and fully embodying this character. It’s sharp, witty, enjoyable, and joyous — a most wondrous film.
* * * *
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Summer, Michael Esper
Length: 86 minutes
Rating: R for sexual references and language
Playing at: Paseo Nuevo