Frances Ha is a fish-out-of-water story in which we actually see that process take place. Flailing, failing dancer Frances (Greta Gerwig), shuffled from home to home, falling behind her pack of friends, wandering off to Paris on a whim and mail-order credit card, is like a sea creature swimming along contentedly until the tide abruptly goes out, leaving her flopping on the shore unexpectedly. One moment the spot she inhabits was her watery home, the next it's her sandy grave. Not that the film is so dark; it's a charming comedy of manners, and one of its charms is that it neither takes itself too seriously nor treats itself too flippantly. One of Frances' most likable qualities is that even as she radiates neurotic discomfort and disappointment, she staggers on, trying to make the best of things instead of wallowing in misery. Her ethos is almost old-fashioned, like a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd hero determined to run with the big boys even as we love them precisely for being incapable of making it.
This befuddled, good-natured determination is a slowly developing element in director/co-writer Noah Baumbach's recent oeuvre - sometimes I wonder if mumblecore (a youthful mid-00s low-fi film movement, in which Gerwig was a leading light and Baumbach a notable admirer) didn't rescue him from an increasingly acerbic middle age. That's where he seemed to be heading with Margot at the Wedding (2007), a particularly nasty piece of work with an ugly look and even uglier characters. Greenberg (2010), on the other hand, saw the sun beginning to emerge from the clouds - the title character, played by Ben Stiller, slowly learned to mellow, relax, and enjoy life. His redeemer, not coincidentally, was played by Gerwig, Frances' star and co-writer, in her first collaboration with Baumbach. In Frances Ha, she's like both characters in that film combined into one: ill-at-ease in the world of settled adulthood, yet ill-at-ease particularly because her own free spirit and good nature don't gel with her rapidly yuppifying environs. While there's nothing particularly wrong with a pessimistic outlook, Baumbach's sour snobbishness was wearisome by Margot and it's a relief to witness him embracing a cinematic Indian summer with Gerwig as his spirit guide. Her character is often lonely onscreen, but she has a fan and admirer behind the camera and Baumbach's rather sweet affection for Frances' foibles lights up the frame.
When the film opens, Frances still has a kindred spirit, her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). They cavort in open homage to Jules and Jim, a connection reinforced by the zippy, cutesy montage and distinctively Delerue-esque theme. When Frances breaks up with a rather unappealing boyfriend, it's far less traumatic than when Sophie "dumps" her to share another girl's apartment. Like Truffaut's couple, their carefree camaraderie is doomed but while Jules and Jim were severed by the war to end all wars and the femme fatale to end all femme fatales, Frances loses her soulmate to a cushy publishing job and a guy named Patch. The abrupt and petty nature of such of jilting resonates throughout the film, and sends Frances into a tailspin all the more confusing for the ease with which it began. Before she knows it twenty-seven is old, her jokes cause awkward silences at dinner parties, and she's sleeping on a twin bed in her old college dormitory, explaining to condescending adults and kids a decade younger that, no, she isn't a student. It's like those terrifying back-in-high-school dreams come to embarrassing life.
Meanwhile, Frances' and Sophie's paths continue to intersect - at times they will repel one another, at others collide with a force of attraction so strong it just can't last. Sophie frustrates, disappoints, and terrifies Frances because she represents the path Frances simultaneously doesn't want to take and is afraid she's incapable of taking; one of the quiet strengths of this film is its awareness that both seemingly contradictory qualities can exist side-by-side. Hence the disgust with which Frances confronts her friend's hypocrisy at one moment, and the envy with which she scrolls through her cheerful blog in a computer lab (humorously, a student peers over her shoulder and asks when she'll be signing off). Frances is never quite sure whether her social stasis is due to a stubborn dreamer's streak or (relatively) limited resources, and neither are we. Ultimately (spoiler-alert) the film emphasizes the former obstacle; notably, however, her acceptance of a low-paying office job and apartment in Washington Heights (as far afield as Baumbach will go...what this film has against living in the boroughs I can't figure) is neither the loose bohemian lifestyle she craves nor the stuffy upper-bourgeois milieu she fears. Instead, it is practical and honest and, as it turns out, the best way to begin modestly yet genuinely fulfilling her dreams.
The movie ends with a winsomely awkward dance routine, a kind of wordless representation of the preceeding film, with casual collisions between the figures onstage, the music slightly discordant against the movement, and yet a certain bounce keeping the whole affair in motion. The film's ensemble fill the small auditorium, chuckling benevolently and intermingling after the performance, in a warm-hearted gesture borrowed from Baumbach's frequent collaborator Wes Anderson. Finally, Frances and Sophie make eye contact across the room, in an explicit echo of Frances' yearning for a moment of pure love, expressed earlier in the movie amidst a painfully alienating apartment party. Here the circle is closed - the two youthful roommates may be separated by profession, relationship, and geography (Sophie is married to a banker and lives in Japan; Frances works at a desk and choreographs kids' routines in her spare time), but across the gulf their bond remains.
Yet the movie is called Frances Ha rather than Frances and Sophie for a reason: when Frances slides her name onto her mailbox at the end (with the "-lladay" part of her surname cutely cut off by space), it's a declaration of independence but also a statement of reconciliation. Not necessarily between two characters, but between two halves of herself. Greenberg ended with the title character finding consolation and peace by escaping his isolation while Frances goes one step further, allowing its title character to find these qualities within. You don't have to go to Paris to find yourself after all. On second thought maybe you do, if only to find out where you really were all along.