Noah Baumbach keeps making his own kind of movie and getting better at it each time. His latest, “Frances Ha,” a collaboration with actress Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay, isn’t big on plot, but it’s full of incident, tension and emotion. By the time it’s over, there’s no doubting that something true and lovely has just happened on screen.
“Frances Ha” deals with a difficult period of life that rarely is depicted as difficult. It’s the time, not right after college, but four or five years down the line, when being broke has become exhausting, when just being out of the house is no longer fun, when 30 looms in the near distance, and when the pressure is on: Do something.
Frances (Gerwig) is an open spirit, floating happily through life, until she realizes that she’s floating nowhere. She has a strong bond with her roommate (Mickey Sumner) and a lesser one with her boyfriend, who is a stand-in until something better comes along. She is an apprentice at a dance company, but at 27 has no chance of making it as a professional dancer even though she doesn’t quite know that. Then life begins to move, and Frances sees that she needs to get moving, too. But how?
Baumbach usually builds his films around difficult protagonists — “Greenberg,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “The Squid and the Whale” — but Frances is entirely endearing, at once silly and deep, hopeless and promising. She is prone to launching into self-revealing streams of consciousness, and her sensitivity and impulsiveness cause her no end of embarrassment. Yet in between our feeling sorry for her, a sense gradually emerges: Anyone rattling the cage this much is bound to get out of a trap.
At one point, she drunkenly and impulsively decides to go to Paris for the weekend — a move that is wasteful and idiotic, yet it is, in a way that can’t quite be defined, necessary. That she would do this and that you might not isn’t what’s wrong with her; it could be what’s right with her. It’s as if Frances has a self-programming soul and an inborn instinct not to tamper with its process. Her eccentricity could lead her into a dead end but also could be the grounding of an original and formidable womanhood. The title, which makes sense by the finish, reinforces the notion of someone not fully emerged but getting there.
“Frances Ha” is filmed in a high-contrast black and white, evoking the glossy nostalgia of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” but also the film noir New York of “Sweet Smell of Success.” The double reference is like a visual reminder that what is bound to be remembered one way often is decidedly less romantic to experience.