It’s a cliché that history is written by winners, and most of our movies celebrate heroes. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, the star, director and co-writers of the sweetly funny “Frances Ha,” shift the focus. They present a sympathetic character study of a young woman with high hopes, lovable foibles and modest attainments.
Frances, a 27-year-old California transplant, hasn’t conquered New York City. Although she’s a modern dancer, she keeps getting in her own way. Her career is sputtering (her moves both on and offstage are less “Swan Lake” than Big Bird). Her friendship with her college pal and post-grad roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), unravels when the more grounded girl moves on to trendier digs and a Wall Street boyfriend. Thus begins a season of couch-surfing, awkward social engagements and downward mobility for our adorable dork of a heroine.
Frances’ plight carries a current of anxiety well-suited to economic downtimes. When a surprise tax refund arrives, she insists on paying the tab for a dinner date, then agonizes over the $3 ATM fee. Later, an affluent couple casually offers her their Paris apartment. Provoked, she maxes out her plastic for a poorly planned getaway weekend. It’s the kind of spontaneous fling that would work if she had someone to share the memories and the expenses. But she doesn’t.
Soon she’s working a summer catering job at her Ivy League alma mater, because the gig comes with a free dorm room. Alum or no, she’s treated as the help. Her situation is presented with good humor and respect, the consequence of her own idiosyncratic and sometimes ill-considered choices. To some it may strike a bit too close to home for comfort.
Baumbach, the creator of such caustic comedies as “Greenberg” and “The Squid and the Whale,” is alert to the perils of sentimentality. Gerwig, a blithe presence in numerous indies, has a quality that makes you want to catch her after every stumble. Their collaboration is neither too sweet nor too tart. They put their title character in tight spots but always give her a fighting chance to rescue herself. And they don’t regard her First World problems over-seriously. As someone observes, for Frances to call herself poor would insult real poor people.
Shot in silver-toned black-and-white and edited with scattershot energy, their film resembles a trifle from the French New Wave. The story keeps romance at arm’s length (Frances half-jokingly terms herself “undateable”). This isn’t a Cinderella story about finding a man but about finding oneself. You may feel awkward laughing at some of her self-sabotaging silliness, but don’t be. Everyone else will be cracking up, too.