You know Frances Ha. She’s the modern-day slouch, also known as the Lena Dunham of this generation: she has vague art-career ambitions, thrives on the independence of singlehood, and acts as a lesbian even though she isn’t.
“Frances Ha,” then, has all the makings of an episode of “Girls,” Dunham’s HBO series about female friends making bad decisions, in the sense that this is another zeitgeisty chicks-in-peril, coming-of-age character sketch. Except it stars Greta Gerwig, one of the most promising actresses of today who turns out a career-making role that’s both life-affirming and endearingly pathetic – the mainstream breakthrough she deserves.
We meet 27-year-old Frances (Gerwig), a marginally talented understudy at a New York ballet company, while she’s still close with her sidekick Sophie (Mickey Sumner); they share an apartment in Brooklyn and fake-fight, knit and play backgammon together. Frances’ observation about their relationship is hilariously accurate when she tells Sophie, “We are like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore.”
Life – and the trailer – clues you into the doom of adulthood that awaits these girls. It won’t always be so … lesbian. And so it goes: Sophie seeks a nicer place because she can afford it. She also has Patch, her boyfriend. Frances has no boyfriend, no job, and now no one to fake-fight with (a space-filler “friend,” played by Mamie “Meryl Streep’s Daughter” Gummer, doesn’t take to well to getting smacked around). It’s like that scene in “Bridesmaids” where Kristen Wiig forces a happy face in the midst of her best friend’s wedding announcement because their future is … well, maybe without any future at all.
This is how Frances handles it: clumsily, pathetically and with a graceless NYC street dance set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” It’s especially intoxicating to see the irresistible Gerwig whirl around with such zest, and more hope than most could muster under these hapless circumstances, during this standout sequence of blitheful delight. Because this isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. The dark cloud hanging over Frances pours with money trouble, lonesomeness, and the terrible inevitably of growing up. And if you’ve seen “Girls,” or the gobs of indie comedies with themes of suppressed adulthood, you know these woes. But not with Gerwig, who dances away with this little gem much like she did in “Damsels in Distress,” “Lola Versus” and Ben Stiller’s “Greenberg.” There’s none of the grating narcissism of Dunham in this role, and “Frances Ha” makes its point without sinking to debacherous levels: no meth, drinking, sex. No boobs!
The film relies a lot on Gerwig, a blundering, socially awkward gump who’s impossible to hate because she owns every bit of her essence. How she puts it after darting through the East Village looking for an ATM, only to return with a bleeding arm and a beau prospect’s “what the fuck” face: “I’m not a real person yet.”
This whole no-job, no-boyfriend thing is reality, but in her own mind, her better self – the one who’s gainfully employed and has a place she doesn’t share with two bums – is the dream she’s trying to achieve. And Noah Baumbach, the indie filmmaker who directed “Greenberg” and “The Squid and the Whale,” does something wonderfully enchanting with the picture: he goes black-and-white, striking a fabled spirit that lends itself to Frances Ha’s arrested adolescence. The bleakness of growing up just isn’t bleak enough in color.