The Quietly Radical Insight of Frances Ha: A Rom-Com Doesn't Need Romance

Noah Baumbach's film about a kind-hearted but directionless 27-year-old woman has warmth, humor, and witty dialogue—without the obligatory kiss at the end.

IFC Films

Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the best way to criticize a movie was to make another movie. That bit of wisdom feels like the guiding principle for Noah Baumbach's lovely new film Frances Ha. It looks like a romantic comedy and sounds like a romantic comedy, but it's so smart, keenly observed, and unbeholden to Hollywood formula that it feels a rebuke to the entirety of female-centric mainstream film. This portrait of New York post-graduate ennui is sometimes warm, sometimes funny, and sometimes acidic, but it's also surprisingly daring—because it makes the rather unorthodox suggestion that finding a nice fella is not the all-purpose solution to a young woman's problems.

The look of the film channels Manhattan; director Baumbach shoots New York in that same black-and-white love-letter fashion, though he's capturing shabbier apartments and louder parties. Frances (Gerwig) starts the film with a boyfriend, but the real love of her life is her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner)—to the extent that when Frances's boyfriend proposes they move in together, she turns him down on account of Sophie. That, of course, isn't the only reason she rejects the offer, and the scene turns from a proposal to a break-up.

Frances is kind of a mess, and she knows it as well as anyone. "I'm so embarrassed," she says at one point, as part of an apology, "I'm not a real person yet." She should be—she's 27 years old. But she can't disengage from her romantic notions of what her life should be. She works as an apprentice for a modern dance company, where she hangs on to the slimmest thread of hope that she'll work her way in. As long as she's clinging to that dream, the idea of getting a "real" (read: day) job is anathema. But you need a real job to make money, and when Sophie bails, Frances finds herself descending through a series of less-than-perfect living situations. (Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote, dramatize her movements with on-screen text of her changing addresses.)

That sense of life in flux should feel familiar to any young New Yorker, and though many have branded Frances Ha as a late arrival (or, some have posed, indirect critique) of the "mumblecore" movement, it seems a lot closer to the work of Lena Dunham. (Her perpetually shirtless Girls co-star Adam Driver is even on hand to help connect those dots.) Those who disdain such influences will find plenty to dislike here: the chit-chatty dialogue, the frequent navel gazing, the lack of color.

Those criticisms are legitimate, but the film itself is so engaging and approachable that they come to mind only after the fact. Baumbach has always had a way with a good one-liner; there's an everyday, casual wit to his dialogue, which is filled with lines like "This apartment is very... aware of itself" and, of a home where one can smoke indoors, "This makes me feel like a bad mother in 1987." The picture also has a right-on sense of tempo, adroitly pivoting between blackout-sketch montages and natural conversations that play out mostly in medium-wides with minimal cuts and crisp, lovingly desaturated photography. Gerwig is, as ever, a delight; she finds the goodness underneath this messy young woman. She may be spectacularly bad at dinner parties, and she may treat the man who's stealing her best friend with barely concealed derision, but she's got a good heart and wants the best for everyone. She's trying, you've got to give her that. The question is if and when she's going to try hard enough.

I hope it is not a spoiler to reveal that not only does Frances Ha not hinge on its protagonist's love life, it is barely concerned with or even interested in it. That's a commendable, even admirable quality in a storytelling medium that continues to maintain the fiction that a woman can only find true happiness in the arms and bed of a dynamite dude. Even a supposedly forward-thinking, trope-busting effort like Bridesmaids had to bend itself into pretzels to give audiences the happily-ever-after that they supposedly crave, and it was worse for it. With its classical style and prototypical New York twentysomething heroine, Frances Ha seems far from subversive. But in suggesting that its title character look inward rather than outward to solve the puzzle of herself, the film is quietly, slyly revolutionary.