Though I remember taking a quantum physics class in high school, I'm still not entirely certain which dimension of reality Noah Baumbach's indie film Frances Ha takes place in. All I know is, after living in New York City for several years, its one I've never personally experienced.
I wanted to like the film, I really did (Brooklyn, go hard). Shot against a spare but stunning black-and-white backdrop that inevitably co-opts Woody Allen's Manhattan, even when Frances (Greta Gerwig), in a predictably feel-good, Billy Elliot-esque moment, pirouettes across the crosswalk to David Bowie's "Modern Love,"--and miraculously manages not to get mown over a taxicab--it was an effort not to drop the word "pretentious," and even harder not to sigh "en-titled," under my breath.
It wasn't because Frances, despite her alleged ambition as a modern dancer (She just can't resist telling everyone) spends very little time in the film actually dancing or practicing. Or the fact that when she isn't sponging off one of her richer, globe-trotting friends, joining them in Paris at the drop of a hat, she is borderline obsessing over her BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner), at whom she feels incongruously compelled to squawk, "I love you!!" at the end of every scene. She doesn't have a job or responsibilities of any kind, but still manages to show up to dinner parties in an Acne aviator leather jacket.
With the conventionally cool frames you'd expect by the fire escape, Frances' greatest worries are punctuated by cigarette smoke as she whines to Sophie, "People are right--we are like a lesbian couple that doesn't have sex anymore." Similarly, the visual gags and dialogue of the film feel stilted and rehearsed, instead of glib or naked. It was disappointing that such a young, good-looking cast lacked any real chemistry: that delicious bite of awkwardness or tension that invites real risk and revelation. Their interactions are soft, safely charming approximations and fashionable imitations of a boho Brooklyn lifestyle that never heard of racked-up student loans or Occupy Wall Street.
Even the humor of Frances Ha tries way too hard to appear supercasual, as when Frances, on a dinner date with Lev (Adam Driver), feigns insecurity, pseudo-confessing, "I'm sorry I'm not a real person yet," when her credit card doesn't go through. Paired with Frances, Driver's usually refreshing presence becomes annoyingly self-conscious, and goes to prove that you can take the Adam out of 'Girls' and, that conversely, you can definitely take the 'Girls' out of Adam.
Actress Greta Gerwig kind of reminds me of a more palatably Hollywood (a.k.a. taller and slimmer), yet banal version of Lena Dunham. Unlike Dunham, Gerwig lacks the sheer force of personality to carry off self-irony well, despite her often sweet, mumblecore moments. She is a clean but surreal dose of effortless, upwardly mobile, waspy, pre-recession Americana that no longer exists. For example, at the beginning of the film, Frances' and Sophie's greatest problem is deciding when they want to move into their new Tribeca apartment--really? Can anyone actually afford to live in Manhattan anymore?
My own recent post-graduation years in New York I remember as a ceaseless kampf to make rent and stave off federal debt through stints of shitty jobs, trying to convince friends not to give up and move back in with their parents as they cried into their night pillows.
So without trying to sound too bitter, I suppose what I find most unforgivable about Frances Ha is the 27-year-old protagonist's total indifference or obliviousness to the facts of life. Even after Sophie kicks her out of her apartment and she is cut from the dance company, Frances turns down generous job offers, stubbornly refusing to adapt or compromise: as we all must, to some extent, to survive. Instead of transforming her predicament into a journey, she prefers to hang out in her "total rich kid apartment," with an equally ennuied roommate (who just happens to write for SNL). Frances isn't neurotic or existentially confused; she's just ordinary. "What are we doing with our day?," she actually asks. Yawn.
One positive aspect I did come away with after watching Frances Ha, is that it made me appreciate alternative hipster narratives like Lena Dunham's 'Girls' even more. Yeah, Hannah Horvath and her friends, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna, also display a tendency to shout "I love you!" at each other a little too often, and could also be accused of being a bunch of spoiled, upper middle-class, all-white Brooklynites. But at least they are somewhat recognizably authentic, and ultimately relatable characters.
American indies are going to have to try a whole lot harder if they want to creatively catch up to the new slew of innovative, reality-based TV dramas, best exemplified by HBO hit series like 'The Wire,' 'The Sopranos,' 'Louie, ' and 'Girls.'
It ain't easy to hit that all-in-one, authentically quirky, tragicomic, and adorable note about young women navigating the enigma of postmodern adulthood and intimacy. And yet, Girls' does manage just that, while Frances is just dancing with herself in a void.
All photos courtesy of Metrodome Group UK.