Given how pervasive the term “hipster” has become in the current cultural vocabulary, it’s astounding how few popular artworks have explored this segment of the population in any serious, human capacity (Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls” is the only one that immediately springs to mind). As a result, the relatively new social classification has remained a superficial caricature: thick-rimmed-glasses-donning, unemployed, indie rock- and film-supporting, Brooklyn-based liberal arts grads with no sense of life direction.
Thus, the fact that Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” treats hipsters as real people as opposed to a cartoon class worthy of unbridled disdain (for what, their shared white privilege?), while at the same time recognizing the core accuracy of the stereotypes (the titular protagonist fits every description above except for the glasses, which are worn by her best friend), makes it a work of note. It also happens to be a great film unto its own, with a singular lead performance from Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach) and an exuberant black-and-white aesthetic that evokes Baumbach’s French New Wave influences.
What’s remarkable about Gerwig here is that she doesn’t ever try to form an “angle” on Frances; she simply becomes the character. Many performers would actively accentuate personality characteristics that drove Frances to her hipster lifestyle—which includes waiting for a professional dance job she clearly isn’t going to get, being unhealthily dependent on her b.f.f. Sophie (Mickey Sumner), waxing nostalgic about her days at Vassar, and wasting her much-needed tax-refund check on dinner out—but to do so would be disingenuous because it would undermine Frances’ complete obliviousness to the ills of her arrested development, much less what led to it. Gerwig’s ability to stay in the moment, not passing judgment on the character, is key to her success at capturing a very real type of American twenty-something.
Gerwig’s commitment to honesty in embodying Frances is also crucial in maintaining the film’s overarching sense of legitimacy. For example, the cast’s typically quirky hipster behavior could have easily come across as cheap comedy rather than a sincere aspect of their personas without Gerwig there to drive a consistent tone. Don’t get me wrong: it’s funny when Frances, vacationing in Paris on her credit card for a single weekend, decides to go see “Puss in Boots,” and when her jobless roommate Benji (Michael Zegen) writes a “Gremlins 3” screenplay to showcase his self-purported talents. But despite their absurdity, these situations are more or less real—I could easily see my peers in the characters’ shoes—and Gerwig’s sustained humanity (our primary connection with the film) ensures that we always see them as such.
Surprisingly, Baumbach’s rather romantic stylistic choices—in addition to the monochrome cinematography, the score consists primarily of Georges Delerue compositions from French New Wave works—never give the film a fantastical quality. Instead, the filmmaker’s positioning of “Frances Ha” as a riff on that era in cinema lends some additional thematic dimension to the proceedings. The most direct reference is Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” which proves a valuable point of juxtaposition in that Frances, like Antoine Doinel, is a wanderer. But whereas Antoine was younger and at least seemed to seek purpose—as in the final shot, when he looked to the audience for it—Frances has every reason to get her shit together but can’t summon the will. Baumbach doesn’t criticize her for this, he simply seeks to capture her life in detail so that we can draw our own conclusions, about Frances in a microcosmic sense or about the Generation Y that she is at least partially emblematic of.
Some have argued that the film’s ending is too upbeat, that it cuts Frances a break she doesn’t earn (I’ll leave it at that to refrain from spoilers). I couldn’t disagree more: one of “Frances Ha”’s best assets is, for all the questions it raises about Frances’ mental health and social worth, it’s never brooding or pessimistic. Raising the questions is enough; to close on a sour note would have been a purely attention-grabbing act for Baumbach and Gerwig. Plus, in today’s increasingly down-on-its-luck American society that fosters hipster culture, isn’t a happy ending just as radical as the downers Godard and Truffaut would often conclude with in their day?