Greta Gerwig is not Zooey Deschanel, and we should be thankful for that. In mumblecore movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Baghead, and in mainstream comedies such as No Strings Attached and Arthur, Gerwig plays quirky and adorable, awkward and charming. But those traits haven't solidified into a tiresome trademark, like Deschanel's Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She hasn't turned herself into a brand; she stays just unpredictable enough. Gerwig's fumbling and self-doubt feel natural, not coached.
And never have they shone better than in her new movie, Frances Ha. Sure, she's playing another twentysomething fumbling through life, but the film plays to her strengths so well—and allows her to dig deeper than she ever has before—that it feels like this is the character she's always had inside her fighting to get out. Which makes sense: Gerwig herself wrote Frances Ha (with Noah Baumbach, who directed her in Greenberg and later became her boyfriend).
In a recent New Yorker profile of Baumbach, writer Ian Parker briefly summarized the history of their relationship: The pair worked together on Greenberg, when Baumbach was still married to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, but soon after that film's release, and the birth of his and Leigh's first child, Leigh and Baumbach began divorce proceedings. Baumbach and Gerwig started dating the following year. Because of the quick succession of events—and the 22-year age difference between Baumbach's partners—it made for a minor gossipy sensation in the world of indie filmmaking.
But Gerwig and Baumbach clearly make a good team, as Gerwig wrote about in last week's New York Times Magazine. Baumbach—who's best known for caustic character pieces like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding—has made his first terribly affectionate (and still very funny) movie in Frances Ha, with Gerwig's spirit lighting it up.
Frances Ha has plenty of recognizable reference points: the black-and-white romantic New York of Manhattan, the playful freedom of the French New Wave, the disarming honesty about young people's lives you see in the recent work of indie filmmakers Andrew Bujalski and Lena Dunham. And yet it's still something new. Gerwig plays Frances, a 27-year-old living in New York who's trying to make it as a dancer in a company that likes her fine as an apprentice but doesn't necessarily see her becoming a troupe member. Sarcastic, hip, funny but also a little sad, Frances is at that age where she and her friends are all still talking about what they want to be when they grow up, full of ambitions if not a lot of clear ideas. Emblematic of the group, an aspiring-writer buddy of hers is excitedly working on some spec skits for Saturday Night Live. When he becomes disenchanted with the process and gives up, he declares that it doesn't matter. After all, he explains, the show has really gone downhill of late.
Mixing music from The 400 Blows and David Bowie's '80s dance-rock phase, shooting in black-and-white, and focusing more on character than plot, Frances Ha checks in at less than 90 minutes, which might give the impression that it's a cool sketch rather than a particularly memorable or weighty film. (Baumbach and Gerwig made it on a quick schedule with a small budget, which only amplifies that impression.) Yet while the movie is light on its feet, it feels substantial. Just about every scene ripples with insights into that anxious period in every young person's life when everything has the potential to take off—or fall to pieces.
Gerwig doesn't significantly change her approach for this movie, but her brand of self-deprecating comedy has never been this consistently radiant and touching. Frances would probably fit in just fine with the women on Girls. She's not as tart as Jessa or odd as Shoshanna or glamorous as Marnie or depressive as Hannah, but her likable self-consciousness and quick wit make her as funny and real as Dunham's creations. (Adding to the comparisons, Adam Driver has a role in the movie.) But the trick to her performance is that Gerwig constantly perches Frances on that precipice between being a kid and an adult, never comfortable in either role but also not happy being in limbo. Frances may be ironic and blasé, but you never doubt that she's also taking in everything around her, whether it's the guy she thinks she may have a crush on or the longtime friend who suddenly and casually betrays her. If your 20s are a time when every little moment seems incredibly cataclysmic, playing into the grand drama of what you think adulthood will be, then Frances Ha captures that sensation in all its messy exuberance.
But Gerwig and Baumbach aren't smug or condescending about Frances' struggles to find love and a career. To the contrary, they've struck a happy balance. A twentysomething making a movie about this period might be too close to the events to be objective, while a fortysomething might be too nostalgic to recall it clearly. Miraculously, Frances Ha is both intimate and wise, its ability to crystallize a delicate time-of-life moment endlessly amazing. As a result, this is a coming-of-age film without all the icky, feel-good baggage that usually comes with the genre. You laugh because it's clever and it's true and you remember it being exactly like that when you were in your late 20s.
One of Frances' friends comments that she looks old for her age, which isn't meant as a compliment. It's a funny scene, one of many in the movie that's intentionally awkward without slipping into full-on Curb Your Enthusiasm cringe, but it holds the key to what has been central to Gerwig's appeal all this time. She seems like an old, disheveled soul who's constantly befuddled to find herself in the skin of a young woman. In the movie, Frances never quite seems comfortable, lurching after each new thing while trying to preserve her cool, as if she's afraid of being found out. For an actress who can look quite stunning in photo shoots, she can be adorably gangly on screen, and she's especially so in Frances Ha: a swan who walks around like she's an ugly duckling.
And that's the core truth of Frances, who can see the woman she'd like to be but doesn't quite know if she can get there. The movie doesn't take her problems too seriously—even Frances realizes that being broke and young in New York City is hardly the worst fate in the world—but it does have deep compassion for her plight. In the past, Baumbach has kept his characters at arm's length, no matter how autobiographical those movies were. With Frances Ha, he embraces her. Maybe it's because he's dating his leading lady. Or maybe it's because Gerwig's just so vibrant in the role. Frances is still finding herself, but Gerwig seems to have arrived.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.