Monday, May 27, 2013

Frances Ha [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (B. Keninsberg) review

Frances Ha [2012] (directed and cowritten by Noah Baumbach along with Greta Gerwig) is IMHO a well written, well acted bitter-sweet comedy about "growing-up" ... after college ... on one's own in a big American city today.  The film is set as a matter of course in New York, but with adjustments the story could easily play-out in Chicago/Los Angeles or Boston/Philadelphia, Seattle/Portland or Miami for that matter, basically any major U.S. city with a relatively vibrant theatrical / artistic community.

The story follows Frances (played by Greta Gerwig) who we meet as an apprentice dancer at a New York dance company. When we meet her, she is living with her best friend from college, Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner), in a shared apartment in Brooklyn.  Sophie is working her way up (with apparently some success) from her presumably entry-level position at Random House (the famous publishing firm) in Manhattan which she landed some years before.

There is a sort of "are they or aren't they" vibe about their relationship, an ambiguity that may distress some viewers, but one that I believe many/most college age+ young adults would probably comprehend.  That many/most college aged young adults would understand the situation may in itself distress some readers here. But 25 years ago, when I was in grad-school, these kind of ambiguous relationships were already going on (And how would I know that?  Because I personally knew a couple of women who lived in exactly this still ambiguous sort of way).  My sense would be that these kind of relationships would be even more common now than back then.  Now why would such relationships be ambiguous?  Well, given both the age and the stakes for the people involved, why would one be surprised?

But I'm getting away from the point ... The point is that the relationship between these two women in the film is ambiguous.  And I give the film-makers a lot of credit for making it so (because it's honestly more real that way).

Indeed, at the beginning of the film BOTH Frances and Sophie actually have boyfriends.  However when Frances is asked at the beginning of the film by her boyfriend to move-in with him, she declines telling him that her and Sophie's apartment is nice, that the lease is going to come-up for renewal in a few months and that she "wouldn't want to put Sophie in a bind afterwards."  Frances' boyfriend takes her response to be effectively a "kiss-off" line (However one slices it, she's appears to be telling him that there isn't a future in their relationship) and so the two break-up.

Two weeks later, guess what happens?  Sophie tells Frances that HER boyfriend, Patch (played by Patrick Heusinger), who works on Wall Street had asked her to move-in with him to HIS new apartment in the swanky/cool Tribeca neighborhood of New York and that she accepted his offer.  NOW Frances is left to fend for herself ... (To be clear here as well, Patch was a serious boyfriend ... the two, perhaps to Frances further dismay, get married soon afterwards...).

What does Frances do?  Well, she crashes for a time with two friends (though both male now) still from college, Lev (played by Adam Driver) and Benji (played by Michael Zegen).  However, the new problem is that their apartment is more expensive than the previous one that she shared with Sophie, and even though they're dividing rent three ways, Frances can't fully cover her share.  No problem, come the Christmas season, she tells the two that she'll be dancing with her company "like every day" and that ought to bump-up her income.  Just there comes a problem ... come October, she's told by her Dance Company's boss Nadia (played by Britta Phillips) that "though her performances are good," the Company "won't be needing her" for the Christmas shows.  What does that mean?  Well Nadia doesn't outright fire her (though what does it mean to be "not needed" in what would have seemed to have been the busiest time of the year for the Dance Company...?)   Instead, Nadia tells her to "come back in February and we'll talk about your future."

What the heck to do now?  Well, she can't afford to stay with Lev and Benji  -- Incidently, again neither of two is gay.  Living in New York as unattached late 20-somethings, they're simply roommates. Lev seems to be more successful in both work and with women and is seemingly leading a somewhat "revolving door" / "one night stand" lifestyle.  Benji on the other hand, is a "struggling writer" and like Frances also "clinging to a dream" that may not be altogether realistic.  In any case due to his insecurity in his work life Benji declared himself (at least temporarily) "undateable" and declares Frances to be the same -- With Christmas rolling around with no income and not wanting to mouch off of her two friends, she heads back home to Sacramento, California to be with her parents.

HOWEVER, Frances doesn't give up.  After all, her Boss at the Dance Company did tell her to "come back in February."  So come mid-January, Frances is back in New York, now in another precarious living arrangement, living this time (at least temporarily) with Rachel (played by Grace Gummer) who is an actual (paid) member of the Dance Company that Frances had been an apprentice for. Why?  Because "in 5 weeks" he believes that she's gonna be working there too.

By now, the reader could guess what happens ... Nadia wanted to talk to Frances in February about Frances' "future" at the Dance company but not about her dancing for the company ...

What now?  By now, the reader ought to have a pretty good idea of the trajectory of this film.  So I'm not going to say anything further except (1) what's remarkable about Frances' character throughout the story is her undaunted optimism in face of a seemingly unending avalanche of disappointments/failures and, (2) SINCE THIS IS A COMEDY, AFTER ALL, IT HAS TO END WELL ... and so it does, though not without a lot of further pain.  However, as everyone who's passed through young-adult age would know, "growing up" and finding one's footing in life, almost always involves a good deal of embarrassment and pain.

Still, I have to say that I've grown to really like Greta Gehrig's characters.  I've seen her starring now in three films -- Damsels in Distress [2011], Lola Versus [2012] and now Frances Ha [2012] -- and I love the cheerful earnestness and the optimism of her characters in face of seemingly overwhelming challenges/disappointments to the point that she reminds me of the comical optimism of a lot of Woody Allen's roles in his films of yesteryear.  I'm not sure how Ms Gehrig would respond to having her roles/style compared to Woody Allen's, but I do mean it as a compliment!  ;-)

Finally, I find it fascinating that while her films certainly don't evoke religion in any explicit sense at all, at least two of her films, Lola Versus [2012] and the current one, strike me as having some more-or-less obvious religious undertones (if not overtones ;-):

In Lola Versus [2012], she plays a doctoral student (a lit major) who was dumped by her fiance' three weeks before their wedding (and for no apparent reason other than perhaps sheer panic on his part).  Yet, despite that disaster in her life, she has to continue with her studies and make a proposal to her Doctoral Board for her Dissertation.  The proposal she gives would be one that ANY Judeo-Christian theologian worth his/her salt would understand: She wanted to study THE SILENCE, THE PAUSES in Poetry, "the commas" as it were.  Someone of my background can not help but think of Book of Job (Job 2:13) or the Prophet Elijah's meeting God in the "silent sound" on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:11ff).

In the current film, in the midst of all her disasters, Frances is asked at an otherwise rather awkward dinner party what she really wanted in life.  She answered somewhat similarly as above, that ultimately all that she really wished for was the assurance of a simple glance, perhaps at a party, perhaps from a distance, from a friend, a glance "that would not even have to have a sexual meaning" but simply one that would indicate to her that "all is okay."

Folks, Matthew effectively began and ended his Gospel with his understanding of the meaning of the whole of Jesus' incarnation, life, death and resurrection, the assurance that "God is with us ... always, till the end of the age." (Matt 1:23, 28:20).

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