After a series of hate letters to humankind, Noah Baumbach has fashioned an ode to his girlfriend Greta Gerwig’s galumphing adorableness (they co-wrote the script). Frances Ha is black-and-white and has a French New Wave gloss, along with a soundtrack that quotes Georges Delerue’s theme from King of Hearts. (It cranks up when Baumbach needs enchantment.) Gerwig plays a childishly enthusiastic would-be dancer walloped by grown-up life in our most heartless metropolis, New York. Sophie (Mickey Sumner), the best friend she cherishes (hugs, holds hands with, tells “the story of us” to), pulls away. She loses the gig that would pay her rent. The camera holds on her open face as she takes each blow. She blinks to signal disbelief, curls her mouth, and bites down on her lower lip. But she galumphs on.
Frances Ha has the trappings and suits of love, but it’s full of sour tones. Few of the characters recognize Frances’s magic: When she tries to explain — with her foggy eloquence — what she wants from life and love, they stare blankly. Baumbach has a hard time letting go of the notion that drama means building to humiliation.
When he does, though, Frances Ha is beautiful and surprising. Later scenes between Frances and Sophie have a messy, wavering tone I’ve never seen anywhere before (Sumner is a scarily focused actress), and almost as fine are moments when Frances lolls around the apartment she shares with two rich boys (expert-seducer Adam Driver, sad-sack Michael Zegen) and tries to hold her own against their well-honed personas. The characters are satirized — but also given their tongues and allowed to extemporize. A quick scene toward the end in which camp counselor Frances finds a young girl sitting and crying in the hallway is almost unbearably lovely. Frances finds a way to transmute her awkwardness into art, after which the movie ends with a little bounce that explains the title. Frances Ha is an irritant when it lingers. When Baumbach’s touch is more glancing — when he cuts before the humiliation — it sings.