An aspiring dancer with more optimism than talent tries to find her footing in “Frances Ha,” and her clunky attempts to do so, which constitute most of the action in this serio-dizzy comedy, add up to an 86-minute puff of joy.
Credit the collaborating talents of writer-director Noah Baumbach and his star and cowriter, Greta Gerwig, for providing the brightness and the buoyancy.
With its depiction of college graduates not quite ready for adulthood, the film recalls Baumbach's “Kicking and Screaming.”
Yet its black-and-white look (suggestive of Woody Allen's “Manhattan” and the French New Wave), sparkling tone and likable central character – an about-face for Baumbach, who's known for more cynical fare such as “The Squid and the Whale” and “Greenberg” – make it fresh, winning terrain for the filmmaker.
Gerwig plays Frances, an unfocused 27-year-old dance-company apprentice working with a choreographer who clearly won't hire her.
Frances is clueless, as well, to the crumbling status of her soul-mate relationship with best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner).
When Sophie, who, unlike Frances, has a good job and a serious boyfriend, tells Frances she is moving to Tribeca with a different friend, Frances begins to down-spiral.
Residence-hopping episodes take Frances from an apartment shared with parentally funded wannabe artists Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen) to the Sacramento home of Frances' parents, to Paris, where Frances impulsively travels for a weekend, to a dorm at Vassar, where she's landed an uninspiring job.
In between, she drinks with friends, talks too much at parties, and learns, to her distress, that Sophie and her boyfriend are relocating to Japan.
Not much happens in this story, which is a wee bit too slight to be a knockout. And it may be due only to the brief running time that Frances' numerous foibles don't get tiresome.
But Frances is an engaging presence, and Baumbach and Gerwig have made a tonally exquisite, personality-rich, minor marvel about friendship, growing up, and achieving your own brand of grace.
Wisely, the screenplay doesn't saddle Frances with trite romantic scenarios. The Frances-Sophie friendship makes a satisfying emotional core.
If Gerwig, with her post-Duplass low-key style, seemed miscast in “Greenberg,” her trademark clumsy charm, genuine likeability and continuing evolution into an ebullient talent proves a terrific conduit for a newly lighter and more visibly humane Baumbach.
Whether taking a pratfall, or running through a street joyfully, or saying dumb things like “I put my ring on my thumb and can't get it off,” or registering on her face Frances' many disappointments, she soars in multi-shades.
For art-house bonbon cinema with a jot of pith, this one's hard to beat.
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen
Written by Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Running time 1 hour, 26 minutes