Greta Gerwig makes "hapless" a happening thing in "Frances Ha." Which is no surprise, because she's spent her brief career mastering variations on a hapless theme.
Gerwig ("Lola Versus," "Greenberg") and director Noah Baumbach ("Greenberg," "The Squid and the Whale") team up to give us the quintessential Greta time-capsule picture, a movie that sums up the navel gazing of Generation Y and summons up every Gerwig character from the era in one giddy yet wistful package.
Frances (Gerwig) is an exemplar of a sort of age-specific form of denial. A Sacramento native, she's settled in New York to become a modern dancer. She's gawky and a little awkward, so that isn't really working out. She can't commit to her boyfriend because she won't leave behind her "same person with different hair" best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), her true other half. But Sophie moves out on her.
Frances is 27, under-employed, and hasn't come close to mastering life.
"I'm so embarrassed," she explains, trying to treat a friend to dinner, but lacking room on her credit card or ready cash to pay. "I'm not a real person yet."
"Frances Ha" follows us through a turbulent year in her life -- Sophie drifting away, the rich hipsters (Adam Driver, Michael Zegen) Frances moves in with, the "You don't have it" hints from her choreographer (Charlotte d'Amboise), the too-brief trip to Paris she takes on "a credit card I got in the mail," just to impress others at a dinner party where she sticks her foot in it, time and again.
The always charming Gerwig, sort of a ungainly girl next door ("I can't account for my bruises."), turns Frances into a tour de force --
impulsive and needy, chatty and unread, hopeful but regressive. Random bits of her dialogue capture a childish woman on the cusp of realizing just what she hasn't realized.
"Sometimes, it's good to do something when you're supposed to do it."
"I should read the news more."
"I'm trying to be proactive about my life."
Baumbach shot the film in black and white, and he amusingly (and portentously) gives exact street addresses for every setting -- Brooklyn, Washington Heights, Poughkeepsie, Sacramento, Paris. He sets a lovely sprint through the city sequence to David Bowie's "Modern Love," a 1983 tune that encapsulates the bouncy desperation of the city-bound and the single.
"Frances Ha" turns melancholy and almost painful to watch in its last act, as she and we see the dead end dead ahead. And the film doesn't seem to earn the finale the two of them cooked up for us.
But Frances, in Gerwig's hands, is never less than unforgettable, even at her most "undateable" and unteachable.
3 stars (Grade: B-plus)
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Charlotte d'Amboise, Michael Zegen
Directed by Noah Baumbach, written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:26
MPAA rating: R for sexual references and language