‘Frances HA’ — a funny, unexpected and adorable film about a dancer

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Getting Greta Gerwig hasn’t been easy.

Cast in middling-important semi-glossy indies like “Greenberg” and “Damsels in Distress,” she seemed a kind of Parker Posey follow-up. Not that she is anything like Posey — who’s small-boned, beautiful, angular, and brunette. Gerwig is large-ish, pretty-ish, blonde-ish and more odd than quirky.

And as the title character in “Frances Ha” (the name is explained in a lovely last-minute moment), she’s not only irresistible; she’s spectacular.

Francis is a familiar figure — a late -20something at loose ends in New York City.  I would say Manhattan, but Frances is one of those people who, for one reason or another, never stays put.

In fact, the movie — shot in low-key black-and-white — is cleverly divided into chapters, each introduced by her current address. That includes a few days with her parents in Sacramento, which may be the best quick-sketch “Uneasy Christmas Visit Back Home” I have ever seen. And nobody is behaving badly.

We know this about Frances: She has a best friend (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) of whom she says, “We’re the same person, different hair.”

Different sense of loyalty, too.  Frances turns down her boyfriend’s invitation to move in because she’s committed to her place in Brooklyn with Sophie. But Sophie has no such scruples when her boyfriend asks her the same thing. He lives in Tribeca, she tells Frances, by way of explanation.

Frances is also a dancer. Never mind that 27 is a bit long in the tooth for prima-ballerina aspirations — heck, it’s old for a member of the corps.  Even so, dance is essential to Frances’s self-definition, such as it is. She “dances” around Manhattan — when she isn’t at a dead run.  Which she often is.

Perhaps that’s the best way to describe Frances. She’s always in motion without getting anywhere.  Her life is as changeable as her different addresses (around five or six, not including a wistfully solo weekend in Paris).

But Frances is not really the wistful type.  She’s simply confused. Footloose, but not exactly fancy free. One of her more hilarious stay-overs places her in the apartment of a couple of trust-fund guys who are as rootless as she is, but they have the means to disguise it (or indulge it). Trying to figure out just what it is about Frances that makes her so…Frances, one of them decides she’s “undatable” Not as in unattractive; more like, she’s her own creature, as opposed to one half of a couple.

Her movie is as funny and unexpected and, well, adorable, as she is. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Gerwig co-wrote the script with director (and other half) Noah Baumbach whose credits include one of the most blackly comic, searingly emotional movies you’ll ever see: “The Squid and the Whale.”

“Frances Ha” doesn’t have that movie’s heft. Its wounds aren’t fatal. Nor are they intended to be. Rather, the film has  — again, like its protagonist — its own rare moods and sense of humor.  And whispers of heartache.

So finally, I “get” Greta Gerwig. She’s someone I haven’t met before, and new people can be disorienting. Even in the movies.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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