Filmmakers are the parents of their characters in more ways than one; artists don’t just give birth, they also have to guide their creations through life. Some filmmakers are too quick to punish flaws and to force their children to melt under their judging gaze; others coddle and rationalize, letting their brats run rampant and pretending that their bad behavior is adorable.
Collaborating on the script for “Frances Ha,” lead actress Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach treat their progeny just right – they let her make mistakes and learn from them, but they obviously love her and want her to succeed. And it’s a feeling that spreads to the audience as well; you may find yourself exasperated or disappointed with some of Frances’ decisions, but by the end, don’t be surprised if you’re rooting for her to get her act together.
A character tells Frances (Gerwig) that she seems old without having grown up, and it’s a fair assessment; being an apprentice at a dance company and a free spirit who doesn’t quite have her living situation nailed down is one thing for, say, the recent college grads of “Girls,” but for 27-year-old Frances, it’s becoming a more and more untenable situation.
When her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) decides to move in with her boyfriend, Frances is unable to keep their Brooklyn apartment. She spends a while crashing with two secretly-wealthy trustafarians, skirt-chaser Lev (Adam Driver of the aforementioned “Girls”) and would-be writer Benji (Michael Zegen), who’s not doing a very good job of hiding his obvious crush on Frances.
When her career prospects go south, she can't pay rent to Lev and Benji and makes the monumentally irresponsible decision to use a new credit card to pay for a spontaneous weekend trip to Paris, making things harder and harder for her. But even when you want to shake her so she’ll straighten up and fly right, Gerwig and Baumbach make Frances so wonderfully eccentric and adorable (and not in an focus-group-tested “adorkable” way, either) that you don’t turn on her for her miscalculations.
Other directors (Todd Solondz leaps to mind) would allow us to take a certain superior satisfaction in watching a flawed character go further and further down the tubes, but there’s an optimism and an empathy in “Frances Ha” that feels genuine and earned. It harkens a bit to “Girls” and to Godard’s “Masculine Feminine” in its view of creative young people messily finding their way through the world – and like the Godard film, it’s shot in black and white – but it’s a uniquely smart and oddball creation at the same time.
The plot doesn’t build to a gigantic, sweeping climax, but the understated final moments of “Frances Ha” have made me happier than any other filmgoing experience I’ve had all year. It’s a rare movie that understands that we all mess up, and that judgment should be reserved for those people who refuse to learn from those mistakes.