Review: Frances Ha

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Frances Ha

The trope of Two Girls Together in New York is one that permeates both juvenile literature and grown-up pop culture. Watching Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) in Frances Ha, however, I didn't initially think about the dramatic and sometimes grim looks at women in the city -- everything from Valley of the Dolls to Sex in the City to recently, Girls.

No, what the two twentysomething friends reminded me of was classic young-adult-lit characters like Betsy and Tacy, teenagers dreaming about moving to New York and living together after their trip around the world. Or Daisy Fay and her friend Pickle imagining their cosmopolitan future in Manhattan. Young female friendships that inspire dreams of the future that include those friends.

Somehow Frances and Sophie call to mind these characters, if they'd grown up and actually made it to New York together as they planned. The two women in their twenties share a tiny apartment while Frances tries to land a spot in a dance company and Sophie starts to make her way up the publishing ladder. They're downright cute together -- a banjo soundtrack accompanies their antics around town, oddly reminiscent of Girl Walk // All Day in sight if not sound.

Trouble brews because the two friends aren't having the same life success in the same measure -- Sophie finds her dream apartment in Tribeca, but Frances can't afford it, so they split up. Frances is determined to appear if not actually be successful, and keep up with her old friend, which leads to some very strange decisions.

What begins as a romp slows down a little and while still amusing, becomes more dramatic and poignant. Frances's decisions verge on the trainwrecky but are still human enough for us to empathize with the character. What do you do when the career path you've planned to follow may not be one that you get to pursue? It's a question that isn't limited to twentysomethings -- hell, any  journalist reading this can sympathize.

Greta Gerwig may not look like what you'd expect when picturing an NYC dancer -- she's more solid and less delicately feminine  -- which only underscores the character's vulnerability. It's an excellent role for her, and she's supported by a number of good twentysomething actors, many of which might be unfamiliar to you. Frances Ha is not a movie with familiar faces glinting from every corner -- the characters are meant to look more authentic, right down to Gerwig's parents playing Frances's parents.

By all rights, Frances Ha ought to be unbearably precious: Shot in black-and-white with a few flourishes inspired by Woody Allen, featuring a dreamy, flaky, unrealistic heroine living in Brooklyn (initially), with a cast of characters who often venture into eye-rolling ridiculousness, and music you might find playing in a hipster abode. And the scenes where Frances gets drinky and rambles on at length ought to be unbearably grating.

But director Noah Baumbach (who co-scripted with Gerwig) has a light and sure touch with difficult characters whom we would simply not be able to abide in real life. Frances Ha's strong and fascinating female relationships -- not just Frances and Sophie but the ways Frances interacts with her dance instructor, her dance-friend roommate and her mom -- give the movie a strong backbone to support Frances's vagaries and blunders. In real life, I might not be able to stand Frances at my dinner party, but through the lens of Frances Ha, I just wanted to give her a big hug and take her for coffee.