Noah Baumbach specializes in character studies, and Frances Ha's Frances Halliday - portrayed and co-conceived by Greta Gerwig, who shares screenwriting credit - is a study in contradictions. A modern dancer whose career is winding down before it ever got going, Frances is gorgeous yet ungainly, a sturdily built flibbertigibbet who's 27 going on 14. The love of Frances' life, her best friend and roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), is moving from their Brooklyn apartment to test out the world alone. Frances is lost without her.
Baumbach and Gerwig use real estate to structure Frances' episodic ramblings. She apartment-hops from Brooklyn to Sacramento to Paris, then back to New York. Frances is more of a scamperer than a rambler, though, as evidenced every time she picks up speed and jetés on the streets of New York. One sprint lovingly lifts from Leos Carax's delirious tracking-shot trot in 1986's Mauvais Sang, same-tuned to Bowie's "Modern Love." There's an obvious and joyful French fixation here, with music cues plucked from The 400 Blows and Contempt, among others, and a matte-gray palette piped in from the French New Wave. (The film is dedicated to the late cinematographer Harris Savides, who lensed Baumbach's last two films, Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding.)
Even Frances' last name, Halliday, has ties to France. It's a reference to velvet-voiced French crooner Johnny Hallyday, which makes sense when you start thinking about one of his hits, "J'ai Oublié de Vivre" (I've Forgotten How to Live). In a way, Frances has forgotten how to live without Sophie. Their physical separation charts the same course as a romantic breakup, from hopeful we'll-still-be-friends vows to a burned-bridges drunken break to a tentative glasnost. There's even a way-we-were relapse before Frances discovers she has her own two feet to stand on.
Frances Ha takes its primary female friendship seriously, and it takes a generous view of the endless-seeming 20s, too. Funny and touching, this film may very well be the most eloquent take yet on a generation in flux, a cinematic reply to so many Atlantic articles, minus the scolding and statistics, and uncharacteristically uncynical (for Baumbach, anyhow). The older viewer may want to tell Frances to get a job with benefits or acknowledge that she's not always the most interesting person in the room, and the film subtly signals that there will be a time when Frances' haplessness will no longer seem endearing. But Frances is quick to find magic in her life, and it's infectious to watch.