On paper it sounds unbearably precious and solipsistic — a cliche, even. Middle-class, college-educated white girl in her mid-20s wanders around New York City with no real home, job or purpose. She has no idea where she's going or what she's doing, and as she struggles to find herself, she ends up even more lost.
But as it turns out, "Frances Ha" is absolutely charming: funny, sad, cringe-inducing and heartbreaking but, above all, brimming with authenticity, thanks in large part to a winning star turn from indie darling Greta Gerwig. This is a great showcase for Gerwig's abiding naturalism; not a single moment from her feels cutesy, self-conscious or false.
She and director Noah Baumbach, who worked together on the 2010 comedy "Greenberg," co-wrote the script, creating a sense of realism through a series of absurd moments. Frances is goofy and guileless, awkward and affectionate but clearly decent-hearted to the core, which only makes her misadventures more agonizing and makes you root harder for her to find true happiness.
Baumbach, whose previous films include the subtle, brilliantly observant "The Squid and the Whale," borrows from a couple different sources here: the chatty, cultured New York epitomized by 1970s Woody Allen films and the black-and-white intimacy and restless youth of the French New Wave. But there's a timelessness to this story and a universality: that state of uncertainty between the optimism of college and the responsibility of adulthood.
Frances is having a harder time forging a path between those two points than her best friend and roommate, Sophie (a grounded Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter), who works at a publishing house and has a serious boyfriend. At age 27, Frances is still an apprentice in a dance company, which barely pays the rent. When Sophie moves out of their Brooklyn apartment to live in her dream neighborhood of Tribeca (this movie it dead-on in its vivid sense of place) Frances finds herself hopping between couches and friends. Among them are a couple of artists/trust-fund kids (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) and a fellow dancer (Grace Gummer) who's clearly reluctant to take her in.
On a lark, Frances takes a weekend jaunt she can't afford to Paris, which Baumbach strips of all its usual romance; she can't even do something traditional like this correctly, but her trip is appealing in its messiness. But what's so great about her is that after each setback, she picks herself up again. Call it stubbornness or delusion, she is determined to be her flawed self at all times; Gerwig makes us fall in love with this seemingly mundane figure by revealing all her shades, all her humanity.
Nothing really happens in "Frances Ha" and yet the film takes us on an emotional journey. If there's a misstep, it's in the rushed romance between Sophie and her preppy financier boyfriend, which sets the story in motion but is never really believable. Eventually, though, Frances' search leads her to a final moment that's so simple and surprisingly lovely, it sneaks up on you with its emotional impact.
It may not be a conclusion, exactly, but rather more of a beginning. There's hope for her yet.
"Frances Ha," an IFC Films release, is rated R for sexual references and language. Running time: 86 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian