August 1, 2014

Frances Ha: Delicious journey to self-discovery

Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help you choose what to watch. This week’s pick is a new film from Noah Baumbaugh, Frances Ha.

Today can be challenging for people living through their 20s. With an economy that refuses to forgive, and social expectations that remain unrelenting, the opportunities to drift can be difficult to navigate without a clear sense of direction or a reliable bank account. And, for a young woman trying to discover her path through a confusing world, the 20s can be an unpredictable place to be lost.

Noah Baumbaugh’s delightful Frances Ha brings this woman’s journey to life in a glorious black-and-white homage to Woody Allen’s Manhattan from 1978. Much as Woody reveals the selfishness of New Yorkers in the 1970s, Baumbaugh captures the directionless ambition of hipsters today, anchored by Greta Gerwig’s captivating portrayal of a young woman who believes in happy endings without knowing how to create them. As with all Baumbaugh films, Frances Ha never veers from its authentic characters and situations. This time the filmmaker achieves a visual breadth and command that makes New York City look as appealing as in any film we remember.

When we meet Frances, her life is a mess. This 27-year-old Vassar graduate has yet to discover a professional purpose; maneuvers from relationship to relationship without a personal foundation; and finds herself trapped in expectations for her future without a realistic sense of her present. When her closest friend and roommate moves to a new apartment, the realities of Frances’ life begin to crash as she begins to realize the perpetual party of her 20s must be replaced by solid steps to financial and personal security. What makes the film special is how Baumbaugh never resorts to delivering his moral in an obvious way. Instead he lets us observe Frances’ journey to her clarity. And what a wonderful view it is.

This magical film works as much for what Baumbaugh avoids as for what he pursues. Instead of staging “scenes” that connect with visuals, he uses his camera to inhabit characters and situations that dare to play as long as they need. Instead of decorating the film with visuals of a locale, he uses his camera to make New York City a character in his story, making the connections to the neighborhoods as essential to these characters as the challenges they confront. And instead of manipulating the action to create a happy ending, he lets the characters find their way, trusting they will reach an authentic point before the final credits.

Baumbaugh finds the ideal messenger for his point of view in the deliberate, original and authentic work that Gerwig brings to the title role. This marvelous actress, so spontaneous at each moment, so believable in each situation, makes us believe in Frances from the start, even as the character can frustrate with her lack of direction and tenacity. Gerwig never makes Frances a sitcom character, never overplays the physical comedy, never resorts to the standard line reading. She lives the life of a woman on the verge of self discovery. And we get to see it all.

In a summer already overwhelmed by big budget sequels, a film as original as Frances Ha is reason to celebrate. Thanks to Noah Baumbaugh and Greta Gerwig, the time we spend with Frances will be among our favorite summer memories.

 

Film Nutritional Value

Frances Ha

* Content: High. We discover, through the marvelous adventures of a special young woman, what it takes to transition from carefree youth to focused adult.

* Entertainment: High. Without burdening the film with a serious message, Noah Baumbaugh lets us observe this woman’s relationships and pursuits without judgment.

* Message: High. Although this film is not for younger children, older teenagers will identify with the questions these characters confront as they move through the 20s.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with our older teenagers and young adults about what life requires can be meaningful.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You can use the film as an opportunity to discuss how we can become who we can be without losing who we are.

(Frances Ha is rated R for “sexual references and language”. The film runs 86 minutes.)

5 Popcorn Buckets