Welcome, courtesy of Noel Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, to a portrait of the twenty-something artist as a quirky and broke 27-year-old in 21st-century New York City, the longtime capital of youthful self-absorption. Gerwig is Frances Halladay, a smiling oddball and aspiring modern dancer whose only “lover” is best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who works in publishing. They’re two peas in a dilapidated pod, until Sophie slips into deep boyfriend territory, letting Frances be Frances, a semi-adult among other semi-adults, most of them artistically inclined but largely dependent on their families to help pay their bills. “I like things that look like mistakes,” says irrepressible if “undatable” Frances, who, powered by Gerwig’s wonderful charisma, carries Baumbach’s black-and-white delight through bittersweet vignettes.
Her housing peregrinations are in lockstep with her attempts to stay close to Sophie while making sense of boys, sex, adult life, and personal responsibility. “I am not a real person yet,” insists Frances, and she’s right. She’s a Vasser semiotics graduate who revels cheery absentmindedness. Gerwig, who cowrote the story, is determined to get at the contradictions of postmodern urban life, where snippets come ahead of conversation, friendship contingent text messages, and no one quite at home with eccentricity, leaving Frances on the outside looking in. Penniless, she puts Paris on a credit card weekend, only to again find herself alone (a disjointed trip perfectly fueled by Hot Chocolate’s 1979 “Every 1’s A Winner”). She wants love, that special connection, but doesn’t have clue how life’s pieces might fit together. Sex is routine enough to lack mystery. What’s left are lines such as, “I’m trying to be proactive about my life,” which means little if anything.
This is not a coming of age film. Instead, it’s an emotionally generous portrait of affluent have-nots tethered to adolescence, indentured to iPhones, entitled selfishness and hoped-for breakthroughs that sometimes don’t come. While Woody Allen danced around the same bonfire decades ago, he made himself the ironic centerpiece of his Annie Hall misadventures. Here, Baumbach and Gerwig ensure all remains in girl territory, a lost and found mostly stripped of gags or irony. Though Frances is going nowhere fast, she doesn’t brood, making her a contagiously winning personality.