It all starts with a mobile phone. Frances, a 27-year-old living in New York, points out that her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) has become distracted since getting a ‘cell with emails’. They’re at that age: on the cusp between post-grad optimism and the realities of growing up, and while some (Sophie) are cranking up to professional success and personal fulfilment, others (Frances) are still struggling to get themselves going.
Frances, played by mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig, is a long-term dance understudy. Refreshingly, Frances is what Americans refer to as a bit of a ‘clutz’, masculine of gait and gauche of manners. It is no surprise to the viewer that she is forever the stand-in and never the lead. At the beginning of the film, she splits up with her boyfriend and the ensuing action sees the remainder of her life (primarily her close friendship with Sophie) unravel.
With its New York setting, witty yet flawed female protagonist and concern with the hinterland between youth and adulthood, Frances Ha already appears a lot like Lena Dunham’s Girls, and that’s even before Adam Driver (who stars in the HBO series, as well as Dunham’s earlier film, Tiny Furniture) appears on screen, playing a potential love interest for ‘undateable’ Frances. You may wonder whether it was budget constraints or a nod to Tiny Furniture that caused Frances’s parents to be played by Gerwig’s own parents, just as Dunham’s mother and sister starred as those of her character in Tiny Furniture. The answer is probably both. It most certainly can’t be a coincidence: Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with Noah Baumbach, and Dunham are good friends.
But where Girls is squalid and explicit, Frances Ha is cute and whimsical, thanks in part to its French New Wave influence (it is shot in black and white, has a soundtrack that references Truffaut and indulges Frances with the occasional long tracking shot of her running or dancing through Manhattan). It is also funnier. Where Dunham’s characters might strip off and engage in humiliating sex on camera, Frances simply refers to an ex who could only climax when having sex with her from behind, lamenting the fact that in this position ‘all the important things are covered’.
To challenge the current popular thinking that television has overcome film as the medium with which to tell sophisticated and powerful stories, despite using the same milieu and subject matter as Dunham, Baumbach and Gerwig have created something more joyful and more entertaining than its television counterpart. But they’re lucky. Their film, which has an uplifting if slightly idealised ending, exists in its own finite universe. Girls, which is far more bleak and problematic, is perhaps feted to be so, given that it lives or dies on the vagaries of television commissioners. The mediums have similar backgrounds but, while one is already established in telling stories of this nature, the other is still finding its feet, just like Sophie and Frances.
Watch the trailer: