(IFC Films)
Like Keanu, they know kung fu.
(IFC Films)

To compare Lena Dunham’s Girls with Noah Baumbach’s new film Frances Ha is as inevitable as it is unfair.  Each feature female 20somethings mired in various stages of arrested development amidst modern New York City and offer up character types that populate any art willing to examine that place and time in an honest and slightly satirical manner.  From there, however, the paths diverge according to their respective medium’s lines.  Girls, with two seasons under its belt at HBO and a third on the way, has the benefit of developing multiple story lines over multiple episodes while Frances Ha is arguably more constricted to a single-sitting narrative fitting of its format.

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Adam Driver isn’t the only Girls crossover.
(IFC Films)

Working within those confines, Baumbach and his co-writer/star Greta Gerwig opt for a decidedly tonal approach, intentionally employing the selected generation’s vapid talk to highlight the lack of meaning that permeates Gerwig’s Frances and her contemporaries.  Navigating their characters through work, love, and adulthood at large via a beautiful black and white lens, Baumbach and Gerwig are impressively aware of the current urban scene at hand yet unable to translate that realism into consistently successful cinema.  As such, the stale content of conversations in this talky film combine for an overall strong statement, but the tedious chatter for the sake of chatter makes for a frequently tepid experience.

 (IFC Films)
Clearly, NYC running scenes are a personal weakness.
(IFC Films)

Among the cultural malaise and dead-end anecdotes, the occasional inspired scene or line of dialogue rings especially true, such as Frances telling her roommate/best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), “You love your phone with email more than you love me.”  Sequences scored to smart musical selections likewise rise above the emptiness.  The montage of Frances running and twirling through the city streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” joins the list of similar transcendent moments in Thumbsucker, Shame, and Gimme the Loot, among others, just as her lonely misadventures on a weekend jaunt to Paris are elevated by the ironic pep of Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s A Winner.”

 (IFC Films)
The Life of Frances: a bicycle built for one.
(IFC Films)

More often, though, the conceptual content holds Frances Ha back, conveying a cumulative bitterness common to Baumbach’s work.  That these young people have little interest in evaluating their lives is another obstacle and paints the bulk of them as sadly unsympathetic.  Even Frances, who swings between intense self-awareness and utter cluelessness, practically only shows signs of taking stock when she lies, the mental wheels noticeably spinning as she realizes that all is not well.  While these standout moments are few, they highlight another difference between the film and Girls, whose leads are almost guilty of overanalyzing themselves.  Here and elsewhere, Dunham not only beats the Frances Ha team to the proverbial punch, but does so with a good deal more humor without skimping on genuineness or succumbing to risky experimentation.  The preferred angle is ultimately up to the viewer, but for this particular one, Dunham’s more personally relatable track has the edge.

Grade: B

Rated R for sexual references and language.

Frances Ha is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqMaeBtK9TA]

10 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Week in Film: Dickens of a Time edition

  2. Big Al i like your observation about the lying, that is one of the truths of the film. I have found myself doing that sometimes in social situations just to fit in and not be the only who hasn’t fully matured yet.

  3. Wouldn’t that negate the point of the film the characters are in a state of suspended adolescence?

  4. What should they have been talking about at that age?

    • Edwin Arnaudin says:

      It would have been nice to see a little more substance creep into their chats. The near complete lack of it was a bit of an overkill for me.

      I prefer content more along the lines of Jesse and Celine’s exchanges from “Before Sunrise.” Those two are even younger than Frances & Co. yet find plenty of mature topics to discuss. Still, that was pre-iPhone, pre-Internet, and pre- a lot of other societal shifts. Are Baumbach and Gerwig saying that today’s 20somethings are significantly removed from this Linklater mindset? I think so and think they’re successful at depicting the current generation to a point, but for me it didn’t always translate to successful filmmaking.

      By contrast, I think that Dunham’s characters balance the existential issues well. They have plenty of empty babble, but still manage to have mature conversations about life, love, and friendship. Again, a TV series allows for a more in-depth exploration of these issues, whereas a film has to commit to certain ideas and see them through in one sitting.

      • I thought that Frances and Co. represented the exceptions, not the rule, so far as 20-somethings are concerned. You notice that her vapid circle of friends is pretty small and closed, and that the first time we see Frances really start to examine herself (albeit half-heartedly) is when she has dinner with a group of people who live outside of that circle who seem more goal-oriented. She finds herself having to lie to them, and perhaps to herself, just to feel included, and notices that her friend Sophie is mentioned by the new circle, implying her inclusion in it.

        I did not see this film as an indictment of the entire generation, only of a sub-set of it, perhaps a warning of where one can get stuck if they assume too much will be handed to them, which is a frequent accusation against
        “Generation Y”. If there is any group that seems determined to live up to this stereotype, it is the art community (like Frances, the aspiring dancer) who feel too good to work a day job until they can perfect their craft, often implying that to do so will corrupt their talent or betray their calling.

  5. I don’t know which intentionally vapid conversation you are referring to?

    I didn’t find the later scenes with Sophie bitter in a satirical way.

  6. I didn’t find anything bitter about this, it and Kicking and Screaming are probably his most sweet films. I am a fan of most of his work i really like the bitter films too and the great wit he puts into his writing.

    There is probably nothing conceptual about this film.

    This is a far superior and more mature work than anything Dunham has done.

    • Edwin Arnaudin says:

      You didn’t find the later scenes with Sophie to be bitter? I enjoy Squid, Margot, and Greenberg, too, and from them I should have known better than to expect something lighter here.

      If the intentionally vapid conversation isn’t conceptual, what is it? Baumbach’s prior scripts prove him to be an intentional filmmaker, so I don’t think that the content of the dialogue here is accidental.

      I don’t know…I think Girls is pretty mature, even if the main characters are a few years younger than Frances & Co. But like I said, it comes down to the viewer on what’s preferred.

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