US (2013) Dir. Noah Baumbach
Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) is a twenty seven year-old wannabe dancer who lives a somewhat transient life in New York with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), without having any real direction in life. As Sophie begins to take her relationship with her boyfriend Patch (Patrick Heusinger) and plans to move out, Frances splits up with her boyfriend Dan (Michael Esper) and now is of no fixed abode. The film follows Frances as she drifts from one accommodation to another and further away from the stable future of her dreams.
Much has been made of this low budget US indie outing from former onscreen collaborators turned real life couple, writer/director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote the screenplay). It features in many Film of the Year lists and has largely received great praise from critics and audiences alike. As a result, this writer came into this film with a sense of trepidation, partly to see if it would live up to its hype and partly due to my own intolerance towards American characters with whiny voices and alleged “quirky” personalities who think the world revolves around them.
In many ways that is what this film delivers. There is no real story per se, just a series of developments as Frances drifts through life trying to fit in on her own terms while everyone else moves in and achieves something, leaving her behind at each step. After Sophie splits Frances moves in with a friend of Sophie’s, would-be photographer Lev (Adam Driver) and his flatmate Benji (Michael Zegen), with whom she strikes up a platonic friendship, cut as they are from the same cloth, in Chinatown. Soon Frances is on the move again after being dropped by her dance teacher, returning home to her family in Sacramento (played by Gerwig’s real parents) for Christmas, then staying with a friend which leads to a weekend in Paris followed by a return to her alma mater to a part time job on campus and living in a dorm.
That is pretty much the sum of the 86 minute run time with regular punctuations of the one constant in Frances’s life, Sophie, whose life is progressing quite nicely and conventionally thank you, doing well in her job at random house, engaged to Patch who has been given a job in Japan – but is she happy? The interesting twist here is that Frances isn’t happy either but she approaches everything with a smile on her face and determined optimism, setting up the illusion of her being an indomitable force when she is nothing of the sort. For all of her Bohemian leanings while in New York, they are packed away when she returns home, dressing smartly, behaving herself and getting on with everyone. Is this her true normality or another façade?
The fact it was filmed in black and white and has a number of obscure French pop songs in its soundtrack will no doubt lead some film fans who enjoyed Frances Ha to feel they are now part of the arthouse brigade from watching something so far removed from the mainstream. The truth is that it is sadly not witty, challenging or stimulating enough to be classified as arthouse; instead it is merely your average American mumblecore outing shot in black and white. However, it has an innate charm about it that unexpectedly wins you over by the end, although you never quite know why.
A major factor might be the performance of Greta Gerwig at the titular protagonist, creating a character that is more complex than she appears, the tacit internal sadness and sense of defeat belying her buoyant and care free external personality. The girl who takes a leak over the side of a railway track in public is not the same one who talks herself into a trip to weekend to Paris which she doesn’t need then realises how alone she is once she gets there. Each stage of Frances’s journey is paralleled by Sophie’s, who moves closer and closer into conventional domestic normalcy while Frances moves further away from her ideal life.
While Gerwig is a beguiling and energetic presence, her character is hard to divine – are we supposed to sympathise with her and admire her free spirit attitude or be annoyed by her apparent immaturity and flightiness? Perhaps it is my own inability to identify with Frances that has created such ambiguity but credit where it is due, while she barely shuts up, Gerwig gives us a unique character that is never dull. Sophie, played by the daughter of Sting (the singer not the wrestler) Mickey Sumner, is essentially the missing sensible part of Frances and vice versa, resulting in a dichotomy that gives us a bittersweet double act that is in some ways better off apart yet so good together. The rest of the cast are you typical obnoxious pseudo-quirky smart mouthed Americans who you’d happily take a baseball bat too.
The bottom line is that Frances Ha exceeded my fears but not the lofty expectations of previous opinion. It isn’t a bad film but for this reviewer it wasn’t the profound, moving and groundbreaking experience it has been lauded to be either, although it isn’t clear if that was the primary intention, outside of being some sort of homage to the new wave of French cinema of the 60’s. Being on the outside of the US mainstream makes it more interesting but ultimately it is still within the safety net of Hollywood conventions. Fine but not essential viewing for me.