James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

Review (Theatrical): FRANCES HA (2013)

A breezy, charming, and affecting Manhattan for the millenial generation, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha offers a poignant 90 minute character study about an average suburban American woman living in New York who, long after she should’ve given up (or at least recognized where her true talent lies), continues to half-assedly follow her artistic dreams as a budding modern dancer.

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What it’s really about, however, is a nonsexual, longtime romance between two people perfect for one another, but who seem less unwilling than unable to recognize the truth: Frances and her college roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), whose decision to move in with her fiancé sets the nominal plot, such as it is, in motion, are depicted in the opening montage as the perfect couple, but then we discover that they aren’t gay at all, just best buds.

What’s really at stake, or so it seems, is where Frances will end up living rather than will Sophie come around, which Frances doesn’t particularly consciously want, though her actions and behavior belie this, as do Sophie’s, eventually.

There’s also the matter of her nascent career, such as it is: Frances, as we are shown, isn’t terrible as a dancer, but neither is she terribly accomplished. Her boss keeps hinting that she should specialize in choreography, which Frances had some good experience doing back in college at Vassar. No, Frances insists. She’s a dancer. It’s clearly what she’s believed since she was a little girl. She even turns down a decent clerical job that would at least keep her in the company among the dancers—Frances is shortsighted about her abilities and her prospects.

But hey, America’s youth are now raised to feel that everyone’s a winner, right? What do mean I’m an inelegant and uninspiring dancer? 

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A key moment occurs when an acquaintance remarks that, at 27, Frances looks older than her years, yet somehow “less grownup.” Ah. Here’s the crux of the problem—Frances is a child, still, one pursuing childishly broad dreams that don’t jibe with the young adult reality of her abilities and motivation.

Nor is Frances able to transcend the restrictive conventions of her All-American upbringing, depicted here as whitebread and average as can be, to fully comprehend the love and perfection that seems to exist between her and her old roommate, who spoon together in bed, love all the same things, and finish one another’s thoughts. No wonder Frances describes herself repeatedly as ‘undatable’—her heart belongs to someone already, though neither are truly able to admit it. I suppose in the middle class suburbs of Sacramento from whence Frances has come, two modern adult women aren’t capable of experiencing ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. Or something.

On another hand the movie’s something of a mild indictment of the millennial generation—these characters, including a sculptor and a would-be scriptwriter, seem to party more than work at their craft (as does the wacky and social Frances); the writer says, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna apply at SNL’ and is working on a spec script of Gremlins 3, more unrealistic, even cartoonish expectations. These youthful liberal arts majors and denizens of the great epicenter of western civilization want to be artists, it seems, who don’t have to work hard at the art, or recognize the nuance necessary in defining oneself as one ages into maturity, or redefining, as the case may be, which is what Frances needs to accomplish.

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As stated, though, the real through-line of this piece, shot in pleasing and atmospheric low-budget B&W video that at times looks a little unpleasantly noisy, is the relationship between Frances and Sophie. The movie’s most affecting moment, in fact, comes near the end, when in a wordless exchange we see depicted a level of heartbreak, hope and loss rivaling Manhattan’s “You just gotta have a little faith in people” beat between Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway, here acted with subtle grace by both performers, in particular the heretofore somewhat two-dimensional Sophie.

With an appealing cast, a sadly exuberant, heartbreaking perf from the fetching, endlessly appealing Gerwig, and a high degree of verisimilitude (only a broad joke or two seems out of place), Frances Ha‘s depiction of modern alienation, loneliness, and unrequited romance is well worth a look. Bear in mind, however, that its concerns are mainly on the level of character, and not with a breathlessly propulsive plot filled with exciting incident and wacky twists. And if the ending seems to you a little too pat and cheerful, remember that essential moment between Sophie and Frances, and you’ll know that everything’s maybe not all as neat and tidy as it at first might seem—either way, though, one is left with the impression that Frances is going to be a-okay. Strong recommendation.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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