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A-Ha moments

Frances explores the subtleties of ladymance



The world needs more BFF stories that are also love stories.

In Frances Ha, Frances is a post-grad dance studio apprentice who doesn't really want to grow up. She's too comfortable might be her problem. The film, directed by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg) starts out in bliss, with two besties living together, nearly inseparable until they separate. Frances spends the rest of her story coming to grips with the reality of her awkwardness and her inability to fit into the social world, a reality she never had to face while nestled within the safety bubble of her "ladymance."

Her story plays out at a literary, ambling pace, but you couldn't exactly call it slow. Frances Ha will no doubt get branded as a hipster flick on account of all the vintage references and quirky dialogue. The main character is a 20-something struggling artist who undertakes a series of seemingly aimless decisions, punctuated by intimate conversations alternately clever and awkward. She lives in a Brooklyn that's been script-referenced down to its streets and subway lines. Plus, the movie's in black and white, despite being shot on digital cameras. Let the stereotyping begin.

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  • Public displays of emotion.

But none of this is really a matter of style. The movie doesn't set out to be hip and edgy. Rather, it uses the superficially convoluted exterior of hipsterdom as an environment against which to develop its most salient themes. It feels like it really wants to grapple with something as meaningful as love in a genuine way, and for a couple brief moments of lucidity, Frances Ha manages to get there.

It all starts with a scene where Frances is trying to decide whether or not to read Proust while she's in Paris. She says, "Sometimes it's good to do what you're supposed to do when you're supposed to do it," and her clumsy assertion unravels a contemporary social anxiety with the rules of cool. It's a mouthful, but it comes off almost triumphant against the backdrop of a culture predisposed to rabid and often unexamined criticism against enjoying anything sentimental, cliché, or trendy.

Later Frances describes her ideal relationship. It's two people locking eyes across a crowded room in a love so confident you might think it's been taken for granteda "secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed." This is one of the film's most beautifully honest moments, and yet when we try to talk about that sort of thing the way Frances does, we so often feel like we have to apologize for not being cynical enough. Like we're obligated to keep a swaggering distance from feelings most of us share. So we end up embarrassed by the supposed triteness and naïvety of our thoughts and find ourselves couching them with disclaimers like "sorry, that was cheesy," or, as Frances backpedals, "...I sound stoned."

The way that Frances Ha so radiantly frames and overcomes this tension also highlights my biggest disappointment. Upon the theme's inevitable boomerang at the dénouement, Baumbach decides he better hit his audience over the head with it. This isn't simply a question of good storytelling. By assuming the audience is too stupid or ADD or whatever to get it, Baumbach contradicts his own core message, and it's hard to forgive him for losing faith right there at the finish line. Frances Ha's potential lies in its power to embolden viewers to trust in those simple, shared and unspoken truths. To put it out there and not second-guess yourself. We're watching, we're listening, we can feel it. Take it easy.

All of this maybe doesn't go very far in helping you decide whether or not to trade in an hour and a half of your time. The film isn't Hollywood, but it isn't exactly 'indie' either. There's a professional polish from start to finish. It's not guerilla filmmaking and it isn't spontaneous. This is well-crafted cinema overlapping the farthest, softest edges of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson.

Frances Ha isn't a movie you have to see. It has a lot of things to say that won't outlive their short-term cultural significance. But its treatment of the fine and complicated line between romance and friendship tips the scales. For all its meandering, Frances Ha manages to capture that pervasive kind of love whose proclivity for defying expectations rebrands the trite as subtle and the cliché as profound.

Frances Ha opens at the Wilma Theatre Fri., June 21.

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