Watching Frances Ha, it hit me: Greta Gerwig is the anti-Zooey. Both actresses are quirky, sweet, funny and attractive, but there’s a significant distinction. Deschanel has built a career as the poster chick for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
The MPDG is critic Nathan Rabin’s influential term for bubbly cinematic creatures who exist to teach brooding young men to embrace life, stock characters lacking any discernible inner life, such as the one Deschanel played in (500) Days of Summer.
In contrast, the characters Gerwig has played, from her mumblecore days to her brushes with Hollywood, have always possessed eminently discernible interiors. Never has that been more the case than with her latest, greatest performance.
The subject of Noah Baumbach’s new film — which Gerwig cowrote — is nothing less than the title character’s inner life (more on the real-world backstory in a minute). The actress is a flaky force of nature in the role of a not-so-recent college graduate not quite getting her act together, perhaps because she’s having too much fun being smart and pretty and promising in the New York of her dreams.
Frances’ two passions are dance and Sophie, her roommate and best friend, played sharply by Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting. The relationship is a startlingly original one. Without a second thought, Frances turns down an invitation to move in with her boyfriend because, she explains, she’s promised to stay through the end of the lease and Sophie will likely want to renew it. That’s the end of that, but the breakup is barely a blip on her emotional radar.
The split that rocks her world comes when Sophie not only doesn’t renew the lease but marries the guy they’ve made fun of together, then moves to Japan with him. Frances was adrift before but is now completely lost at sea. The balance of the picture concerns her often-comical attempts to get her bearings.
If you’re experiencing a twinge of déjà vu, it might be because Baumbach has been here before. His first film, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, likewise examined the difficulty a certain type of person can have escaping the gravitational pull of college. The difference between the two films comes down to the effortless charm, charisma and talent of Gerwig, who, it’s amusing to consider, was 12 when Baumbach’s debut was released.
Here comes the real-world backstory: After making Greenberg together in 2010, Gerwig and Baumbach started an email relationship that developed into a working relationship and, eventually, as shooting on Frances Ha began, into a romantic one. Today they’re the industry’s most unlikely power couple. And the filmmaker, not incidentally, is a new man.
Before, he made sourpuss masterworks like Margot at the Wedding. With a worldview now skewed more toward that of his new muse, he’s produced something entirely unexpected — a funny, life-affirming portrait of a well-meaning young woman who’s a work-in-progress.
Filmed in luminous black and white by Sam Levy and filled with references to the French New Wave that nobody will get (big fan of Georges Delerue’s ’60s Truffaut scores, are you?), it’s possibly the year’s most revolutionary film. As Gerwig pointed out, it quietly defies convention:
“Movies, theater and television shows — we look to them to tell us what’s important in the narrative of our lives and what moments count. If the only moment that counts is whether or not he likes you, that’s not good enough.”
That’s right. This is a movie about gifted, beautiful twentysomethings in which nobody falls in love; it's the story of a lost but lovable soul looking for her place in the world. In the hands of these filmmakers, that’s good enough and then some.
"Frances Ha" will be screened on Sunday, October 20, at 4 p.m. at the Main Street Landing Black Box Theatre in Burlington. $10. Buy tickets at vtiff.org.