Movies in Review: Frances Ha

Rex Santus

There’s a sequence in “Frances Ha” in which Greta Gerwig, an actress who has spent the last few years on the fringes of recognizability, runs through the crosswalks of Brooklyn, pirouetting and leaping as David Bowie’s “Modern Love” plays. It’s an easily cool little scene.

In that moment, I had the same feeling about this woman that I did watching Susan Sarandon throw a tantrum in “Atlantic City,” or, more recently, Jessica Chastain stumble away from rejection in “The Help.”

Like Susan Sarandon or Jessica Chastain, Greta Gerwig is a movie star. She has that ineffable grace about her — the kind that makes the viewer content just watching her. That’s the type of strength an actress needs to bring to the lead role of a movie like “Frances Ha,” which has about as thin a narrative a good movie can get away with. And “Frances Ha” is indeed a good movie.

Greta Gerwig has appeared in a handful of movies with much bigger stars — Ben Stiller, Natalie Portman and Ellen Page, among a slew of others. Still, she’s managed to stand out in large ensemble casts in titles like “No Strings Attached” and “To Rome With Love,” neither of which, to this viewer, were all too memorable as wholes. Maybe “Frances Ha” is Great Gerwig’s catapult to stardom, although eternally confining her to small-scale character pieces is far from the worst thing that could happen to movies.

“Frances Ha,” directed by Greta Gerwig’s real-life boyfriend Noah Baumbach, initially seems like one of those nothing-happens, semi-artsy comedies. Think HBO’s “Girls,” except this is shot in black-and-white for some reason and doesn’t have any awkward, gratuitous sex scenes. That’s no insult — “Girls” is a good show. Call me easy-to-please, but I don’t mind watching creative, likable young people hang out with other creative, likable young people in a city where I can only dream of affording an apartment.

As seems to be the trend, “Frances Ha” has a far louder emphasis on platonic camaraderie than anything relative to conventional romance. Frances and best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) are the silver screen’s Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins — boisterous, intelligent women who love crass humor just as much as liquor. Problems ensue, however, when Sophie seems to sprint ahead of Frances in the maturity department. (She moves out of their apartment, quits her job, relocates to Tokyo and gets serious with her boyfriend.)

That’s about it for the narrative, which floats around, like its protagonist, with limited connectedness. Frances spends the remainder of the movie shuffling from apartment to apartment, struggling to maintain the post-college zeitgeist that she believes defines her. And yes, Noah Baumbach’s steady hand and Greta Gerwig’s mere presence make this age-old, distracted character journey radiant. This is Noah Baumbach’s best movie since “The Squid and the Whale,” and Greta Gerwig is just that effortless, that funny. It might not be flashy, but “Frances Ha” doesn’t need garland to shine.