Noah Baumbach’s great Greenberg (2010) may test viewers’ tolerance for misanthropy, but at heart, it’s a portrait of aggravated loneliness, of a socially stunted man-child who lashes out however he can. Baumbach’s Frances Ha is in some ways a twin portrait of toxic (and unearned?) neediness, centered on a more sympathetic protagonist. Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote with her director, plays the eponymous heroine, a 27-year-old who passes through life with an exuberance that’s obnoxious and disarming in equal measure. At the outset, she rebuffs her boyfriend’s offer to share an apartment, only to be promptly dumped—and then learn her longtime friend and roommate (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) plans to abandon her as well, relocating to a chic Tribeca apartment and taking her own relationship to a new level. Sumner is Gerwig’s closest confidant—they are, in Gerwig’s words, like “an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore,” and the pair’s split throws her for a loop.
Struggling with a dance career yet stubbornly, comically resistant to all advice, Gerwig flails from one half-baked living arrangement to the next—moving in with Michael Zegen and Girls’ Adam Driver; imposing on fellow hoofer Grace Gummer (and joining her for a truly mortifying dinner with friends who own a pied-à-terre in Paris); taking a job at her alma mater in a last-ditch effort to hold onto what she sees as happier times. Quietly, empathetically, and without ever apologizing for the lead’s impulsive idiocy, Frances Ha charts the character’s dawning independence and acceptance of adulthood.
As both actress and writer, Gerwig has never had a richer showcase, and her usual flightiness is chased with just enough pain to keep the character grounded and recognizable. Shot in black and white, the movie at times plays like a hybrid of the layabout style of recent mumblecore and the more sharply written type of post-collegiate talkfest Baumbach delivered in Kicking And Screaming. It’s a film about contradictions: Few movies have so insistently probed the paradoxes of class among aimless NYC twentysomethings. Gerwig doesn’t have money for rent, she claims, yet she has a safety net, and to call her poor, as one character notes, is “offensive to actual poor people.” There’s mordant humor when she’s forced to make an emergency ATM run to pay for dinner, as well as when she decides to take a sudden, disastrous trip to Paris for two days, which is barely enough time to conquer jet lag.
But above all, Frances Ha is a wry and moving portrait of friendship, highlighting the way that two people who know everything about each other can nevertheless grow apart as their needs change. The dynamic between Gerwig and Sumner (terrific in a tonally tricky role) becomes almost unbearably poignant in a late scene between the two at Vassar. Whether it’s there or when Gerwig visits Sacramento for the holidays (her parents play themselves), the movie makes the subtly optimistic point that the life you build in youth is always available. Friendships may change, but true friends will adapt.