(This review was originally posted at Reel Film News on May 24, 2013.)
Man, I really wish I hadn’t read the Frances Ha poster in the theater lobby before I saw the movie. “A deft, uproarious comedy” is the big quote that’s emblazoned at the top of the poster… and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Advertising does color one’s expectations, so I went into the movie looking for a lot of laughs and silliness. Definitely got the latter, but very few of the former. Instead, what Frances Ha turns out to be is a movie concerning a girl who is trying like hell to hold on to her youth and fighting growing up. Sure, there are some laughs, but they’ll mostly arise from the kind of awkward comedy that’s not based on how funny a line is, but how funny it’s not. I generally hate these kinds of movies, but reflecting further upon the film and distancing myself from basing my opinion on another reviewer’s quote, I’m finding that the movie is simply about post-college life in New York City and trying to find your place in the world.
Co-writer and star Greta Gerwig is in almost every shot of this entire movie, playing the eponymous Frances Ha(lladay); to my recollection, events never take place outside her own sphere of consciousness, as we witness everything she’s experiencing. Being that she’s still growing up and growing into herself, she (of course) has to learn things the hard way and not listen to anyone, even though they’re trying to help. Her roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who’s been Frances’ best friend since college, seems to be Frances’ hetero-life-partner and co-conspirator; one hardly does anything without the other, and it’s plain to see that Frances just doesn’t have a personality outside of her life with Sophie.
However, as time does to us all, she’s forced to grow up and do things on her own. Some of her efforts are met with failure, some with success; however, it’s that she’s trying that seems to be a miracle. We see a hopeful person slowly get crushed by the weight of financial pressures, job stress, loneliness, and general malaise. SO WHAT? Why am I supposed to care about this? Just because it’s filmed in black-and-white, has a quirky French-sounding score, shot using a cinema verite style, and uses David Bowie songs to provide a lift, does that mean it’s instantly great? No. I didn’t like this movie at all. Maybe I missed the point of it, or maybe I’m too old to understand why it’s being regarded as the indie darling of the year. Here, we have Frances Halladay in every single scene of the movie, making everyone uncomfortable with her narcissism and her utter lack of personality. And while she has dreams to chase and places to go, it doesn’t feel like it means anything to her; it’s just a perfunctory step of growing up and is easily forgotten as she moves onto the next thing she chooses to make into her own personal drama.
It’s like everyone in this movie is entirely wishy-washy and only says what they think the other wants to hear. Frances Ha feels false, and annoyingly so. We’ve seen movies like this before: main character has a boatload of sort-of terrible things happen to him/her, only to warrant a bout of self-reflection and a reinvention of oneself, culminating in showing the world just what s/he can do, and in a semi-triumphant way. But for some reason, this time around, I can’t find myself caring about the character at all. She obviously is still stuck in arrested development and does only what’s expected of her, and sometimes in a stereotypical sense. She flies by the seat of her pants and doesn’t care about the effect it will have on her or her friends; basically, she makes up stories on the spot and then carries through with them, and at least she does follow through on what she says she’s going to do. There, I guess, is the film’s charm: someone who’s not afraid to make up life for herself at a moment’s notice and stick to it. It reminds me of “The Open Window” by H. H. Munro (also known as Saki), and the last line of it: “Romance on short notice was her specialty.” It seems that Frances lives her life by this, no matter how big the hole she’s digging for herself gets to be.
FINAL GRADE: C