The coming-of-age story has long been a Hollywood obsession, and tales of the risk-ridden career path of professional artists has been a understandable and persistent fascination for filmmakers as well. And yet, as Frances Ha played to a Closing Night crowd at the Sarasota Opera House this year, it felt as if something completely fresh and new was being projected on the screen.
The Noah Baumbach-directed film, a character exploration of a 20-something aging out of New York’s professional dance scene, is shot completely in black and white, telling a timeless story in a timeless way, but finds its innovation in female characters too often left in the background of similar films of yore.
Greta Gerwig plays the title role in the film, portraying Frances as a female Peter Pan with no desire to grow up. A ballerina enjoying moderate successes in the city’s dance companies, the character clings desperately to an idea of youth that seems present all around her but which moves increasingly away from her reach. Through most of the film, Frances moves from one couch to another, living on the kindness of friends until that kindness is exhausted.
But somehow this frustrating and sad state of affairs is told in ways that garner frequent laughs. In a memorable segment of the film, Frances spends nearly all of her money to spend a short weekend in Paris, then ends up sleeping through most of her time there thanks to jet lag. A mix of empathy and schadenfreude turn absurd actions into choices anyone can relate too, even as Frances’ every action blows up in her face.
Of course, the main reason Sarasota Film Festival organizers worked to get this film in Southwest Florida was likely the performance of Mickey Sumner, who plays Frances’ on-and-off best friend Sophie. This is a far different role than festival goers might expect from Sumner based on last year’s fan-favorite Missed Connections. In Frances Ha, Sophie is the straight-laced pillar of stability in Frances’ frenetic life. While Frances seems incapable of settling down in a long-term relationship, Sophie is getting married to a successful man. But Sophie’s seemingly safe choices lead to her own challenges and heartaches. Sumner’s portrayal earned the actress this year’s Breakthrough Performer Award at SFF this year.
The conclusions one may draw about life from watching Frances Ha may be a little depressing. The path of characters is a reminder than no path, be it winding or straight-and-narrow, necessarily leads to happiness and success. But the story has its own sort of happy ending, with characters finding an acceptance of their lot in life, if not an achievement of their loftiest ambitions.
Perhaps telling such a melancholy tale and leaving viewers optimistic characters can end up happy in the end is an achievement of an impossible dream by itself.