*A shorter version of this review was posted on The Film Experience during TIFF12.
Noah Baumbach’s exquisite Frances Ha was the brightest light of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. This is the filmmaker’s funniest, most refined and personal work. Developed by himself and Greta Gerwig after the couple worked together on Greenberg, the film is about the 27-year-old Frances (Gerwig) who has yet to find her direction in her professional or personal life. She shares an apartment with her friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and works part time for a dance company, hoping to join on a permanent basis.
The film opens with rapid-fire banter between the two friends and despite it being genuinely hilarious, it immediately worries the audience that it might be too self-conscious. But the tone changes after Sophie, during a particularly well-constructed sequence on the New York subway, informs Frances of her intention to leave their apartment and move in with a boyfriend. Confronted with the prospect of loneliness and the lack of financial means to pay for the rent on her own, Frances is launched into a series of misfired attempts at detaching herself from Sophie and refocusing her life.
The oddly synthetic opening becomes the basis of a very real journey of self-discovery. Anchored by a smart and sensitive performance from Greta Gerwig, who builds both on her trademark off-kilter humour and the authenticity of her mumblecore works, Frances Ha is an energetic and emotionally rich portrayal of a generation that is too often portrayed but quite frequently misrepresented in American cinema.
Baumbach and Gerwig’s intention is to really make this all about Frances and what we see on the screen certainly gives that vibe. Though the film gives the impression that it is improvised, the reality is that on the contrary, it’s very cleverly calculated. Like pieces of a puzzle, every artistic decision – from song choices like Bowie’s Modern Love to the Black and White cinematography that will undeniably be compared to Woody Allen’s Manhattan – falls into place to form a clear portrait of Frances. That Gerwig had a hand in writing the script, shaping her character, and detailing the slow burning of her friendship with Sophie is not surprising given how well she throws herself into Frances’ world. Ultimately, it’s the little precious particulars of her story that make the film truly special.
Gerwig’s flawless study of this endearingly impulsive, haplessly clueless character is surely bound for major awards recognition if the campaign team knows how to bring Frances Ha to the attention of voters. The film might prove to be a niche item on the market – though I personally don’t think it is; it’s much more accessible than Greenberg – but I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t connect with Gerwig’s performance.