If Frances Ha is what nepotism looks like, let’s hear it for family trees.
Consider: The writer-director of this small, gemlike coming-of-age comedy is Noah Baumbach, son of former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown and author Jonathan Baumbach. Three of its most arresting supporting players – Mickey Sumner, Grace Gummer and Charlotte D’Amboise – are the daughters of Sting, Meryl Streep and ballet superstar Jacques D’Amboise, respectively. Not to be outdone, the incandescent star of Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig, casts her own parents as her character’s mom and dad, roles they play with a bracing lack of self-consciousness or patronizing irony in a movie set squarely in that fraught nether-region between arrested adolescence and adulthood.
Who knows what other showbiz skeletons are hiding in the closets of the superior ensemble cast? And who cares? Writing with Gerwig, Baumbach has created a fey, sneakily charming generational touchstone on a par with Annie Hall and his own Gen Y col-grad comedy Kicking and Screaming. And he’s created a spectacular showcase for Gerwig, a creaturely, almost feral sprite whose instincts and born-ready camera presence have long been staples of hand-made indie productions, but have yet to find their rightful purchase in mainstream Hollywood (Gerwig’s participation in the benighted re-make of Arthur notwithstanding).
As Frances Ha opens, 27-year-old Frances (Gerwig) is living in Brooklyn, sharing an apartment with her best friend Sophie (Sumner, in a bespectacled, brainily appealing breakout turn), their relationship telegraphed in an early montage showing the two women fake-fighting, knitting, talking, playing backgammon and doing laundry. (Frances will later say of Sophie, We’re the same person, different hair.)
Sophie, an aspiring writer and editor, works at Random House; Frances teaches dance classes and works as an understudy with a contemporary company in which she’s clearly outgunned by more lissome talents – among them a stone-faced prima donna played with flawless lack of affect by Gummer. Frances and Sophie make easygoing fun of Sophie’s boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), with his pre-distressed baseball caps and Yo, bro vernacular. But when things look more serious with him – and when Sophie unceremoniously informs Frances that she’s moving to Manhattan to a better apartment – Frances’ world begins to wobble, her once-charming aimlessness taking on the contours of a more pathetic and alarming lack of direction.
Shot in lo-fi black and white and set at a brisk and unforced pace, Frances Ha follows Frances along an archipelago of places where she crashes to figure things out.
Watching Frances bumble and literally stumble her way through painful life transitions is wince-inducing but never gratuitously cruel: Frances Ha is too warm and laugh-out-loud funny to be a cynical downer, even when its heroine acts drunk or foolish or too-desperate.