From director Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha is distinct from his previous movies, which based on the spreadsheet, no one else has seen. In the three I'm familiar with (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, and Margot at the Wedding), they share a commonality of being about fundamentally unpleasant people wrecking their personal and professional lives with rampant assholery. Frances Ha takes the opposite tack by having a protagonist I can immediately root for. Frances's and Sophie's opening montage in New York does an excellent job of establishing the stakes of the movie. This is a friendship that appears mutually beneficial, honest, and long-lasting, and therefore something valuable.
Baumbach immediately puts it in jeopardy with Sophie's changing of apartments, and exposes the financial thread in the movie that I was a big fan of. Sophie has a reliable job and is in a relationship with a finance douche, so she's set. The two guys Frances moves in with come from rich families and can spend their time either sculpting and fucking and hat-wearing, or writing a script for Gremlins 3 that is 100% theoretical. Frances is shown to be a modestly-talented dancer and out of her depth compared to Mischa Barton, ill-equipped to make a living at her chosen profession, and missing opportunities with her friends because she can't afford it. Their shared proximity makes the disappointment that much more acute. The easy wealth at the mid-movie dinner party throws this into the sharpest relief, as all anyone can talk about is what their money can do for them while Frances is only left with her narcissistic exposition about her friend group. To be surrounded by money but have no access to it must be incredibly isolating and Baumbach ably communicated that to me here.
For a movie as short as this one, it packs in so much character detail about Frances. Her messiness and the way she primps in every mirror she comes across says plenty already, but the fact that Gerwig actually eats on camera makes Frances immediately more human. She pulls off a solid comedy fall, this happening after she struggles with the decision to accept the $3 ATM fee. Following up cavity work with a big sundae, trying to subtly squeeze extra time out of squatting in Barton's apartment, it's all indicative of an immature person who hasn't reckoned with what she really wants out of life. That I was always on her side, or at least sympathized with her meltdown, goes to Gerwig's performance. She's a great presence throughout, when sloppy drunk or giddily running through the streets. Her scenes in Paris were pathetically sad and her scenes in Sacramento were alive with the warmth of being back in the cocoon of your parents' home during the holidays, or whatever I assume that's like.
There's a theme running through the movie about the worth of sincerity that I enjoyed, based purely on how a movie like this could have gone. Frances could have put in the work at the studio and become a great dancer, breaking into the A company and receiving a standing ovation with all her friends in the audience. Instead, the movie acknowledges that that was never going to happen, and her talents laid elsewhere, behind the curtain. In the intro, Frances reads an article out loud that is about how calling something sincere is basically equal to 'points for effort.' You tried, and there's some value in trying, but without insight or talent, that value is miniscule. This gets revisited, in the scene where Frances pats herself on the back after asking her boss for more teaching opportunities, and in Bowie's song Modern Love, which is about continuing on without any signs of progress. Admirably, Frances Ha doesn't indulge the 'you can do anything' bullshit and admits that without parental patronage, people don't get to do anything they want. Your effort might get you the next thing if you're willing to compromise, but it's not enough for the first thing.
On top of the performances and the writing, I loved how this movie looked. The black and white was an interesting choice that I thought worked, and the blocking and lighting made every shot look like it could be a striking photograph. Baumbach has a great eye, and his work with his cinematographer kept things continuously interesting.
Overall, I'm a big fan. This was like Girls with more likable characters. There's even a few scenes that bear very close resemblances to some key Girls moments. I know that's an unpopular show in this circle, but there's a place for movies like this between the frivolity of triangle-hunting and the existential questions found in arm piles. It doesn't quite have the size or the depth to earn the full A, but I give this an A-, and earns a spot in my 2013 top 20. Sorry, Captain Phillips, you're getting bumped.