Review: Greta Gerwig is superb on both sides of the camera in ‘Frances Ha’

TELLURIDE – There is a moment in the new Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig collaboration “Frances Ha” where you begin to think, “Oh, no.  This seems way too much like Lena Dunham”s ‘Girls.””  And during the picture”s opening act, the tone and hipster Brooklyn setting makes that a very valid concern.  Thankfully, and somewhat remarkably, “Ha” transforms into something all its own.  

A rare contemporary black and white film, “Ha” begins by introducing us to Frances (Gergwig who co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach) and Sophie (Brit Mickey Sumner with a very convincing American accent). The two roommates and best friends are finding their way in love and life after college amongst the New York City jungle.  Thy dream of a day when Frances will be a world famous modern dancer, Sophie will rule the publishing world and they”ll each receive honorary degree after honorary degree.  Almost inseparable (Francis remarks that the coffee shop employees think they are a lesbian couple who no longer have sex), the audience can easily decipher that Frances” fixation with her BFF is affecting her romantic relationships and possibly her career choices. Frances’ pleasant, dream-like world comes to a stop when Sophie reveals she”s going to move into a Tribeca apartment with someone they both previously despised.  It”s the first sign to Frances that things won’t be getting easier, but her bubbly personality refuses to believe it.

Unable to afford her current Brooklyn apartment on her own salary, Frances moves in with Lev (Adam Driver of the aforementioned “Girls”) and Benji (a surprising Michael Zegman).  It seems like perfect set up. She loves the apartment, the “boys” are liberal and artistic, and both have rich parents funding their non-career careers (Zed is a sculptor and Benji is working on a “Gemlins 3” spec script).  While Zed brings home one girl after another it becomes obvious to everyone but Frances that Benji has a crush on her. She”s probably a tad confused because he nicknames her “undatable,” but like many 27-year-olds she doesn”t see that Ben is a gem life is throwing right in front of her.  She”s just oblivious to it and distracted by her increasingly distant relationship with Sophie and even more bad news at her dance company.  And while Baumbach and Gerwig”s witty observations sound similar to Dunham”s distinct voice during this part of the picture, this is also where Frances’ story makes a somewhat dramatic turn we haven’t seen Dunham take.

Movies about struggling twentysomethings in New York barely making ends meet are nothing new.  In fact, there are so many it could probably justify it”s own genre. Unlike some of their predecessors, however, Baumbah and Gerwig are willing to let Frances crash and fail in a realistic way.  And she fails hard because she cannot see her life down any other path then the one she”s dreamed about and worked for.  So, Frances continues to make the mistakes you”ve either made yourself at that age or that you”ve seen others make.  A perfect example of Frances’ obliviousness is a dinner with a crowd likely 10-15 years her senior.  She quickly puts her foot in her mouth on one topic after another. It”s funny and painful to watch at the same time, but to Gerwig”s credit she endears tremendous sympathy for Frances during these cringe-worthy moments.

As we see Frances crash, Baumbach smartly keep the tone of the film light enough so that hope can shine toward the end and Frances can learn from her mistakes without it seeming like a tacked on Hollywood ending.  The decision to make the picture in black and white also allows keeps the Manhattan setting from distracting from the unique characters in Frances” world.

Gerwig is simply superb as Frances. As in “Greenberg,” Baumbach brings out an emotional side of the actress that other director”s haven”t attempted to find.  It helps that she knows the material so intimately, but her performance as Frances may be her best and most three-dimensional to date. Unlike her work earlier this year in “Damsels in Distress” or “Lola Versus,” Frances is a real character you can reach out and touch. Because of the comedic aspect of much of the picture Gerwig may not get the credit she deserves here. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

Commercial prospects for “Frances” are intriguing, but not a sure bet. “Ha” could benefit from awards season recognition, but it”s likely only an original screenplay and best actress player with the later being an iffy proposition at best.  Mini-majors such as Focus, Fox Searchlight, The Weinstein Company* and FilmDistrict are smart enough and have a big enough apparatus to nurture a $6-10 million gross domestically.  Anyone expecting more should be wary as this is strictly a commercial art house play.

*Of course, as a Scott Rudin production the chances of Weinstein securing the picture are pretty much slim to none.

“Frances Ha” premiered at the 38th Telluride Film Festival. It will also screen at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.