Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha" (May 17) follows a young woman drifting through the generous definition of "coming of age" that has become en vogue with the advent of Mumblecore and American indie films over the past decade. Frances Halliday (Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the film and also starred in Baumbach's "Greenberg") is the questionably tender age of 27, facing the woes of Brooklyn rent, a would-be career in modern dance that has stalled mid-pirouette and a best friend who is slowly breaking up with her.
Gerwig is a consistently watchable screen presence, even if she only rarely lands films deserving of her pleasingly awkward charisma. Baumbach is an able director, of course, but one gets the sense that he's lazily babysitting here, helming a script that's too specific to 20-something hipster ennui for him to have had much of a hand in it. The drawback: this story has been told so many times in only mildly differing forms, and in this case with little if anything new to add to the firmament.
The film is shot in grainy black-and-white, and features haphazard French New Wave references. During a sequence where Frances darts from a restaurant to a far-afield ATM, to make good on her offer of buying dinner for her date, a sped-up version of the theme from "The 400 Blows" decorates the soundtrack, while an annoying ripoff of Georges Delerue's "Jules and Jim" score pops up later in the film. Instead of giving the film a sense of vitality, these empty flourishes only underscore the faux-whimsical and self-congratulatory branding of the Brooklyn artist lifestyle.
Frances is supposed to be an individual, forging through life's hardly dire uncertainties and disappointments. She isn't unlikeable, nor is Gerwig's portrayal, and the character is funny, entertaining and relatable enough to follow to the film's conclusion. But Frances' individuality feels plagued by sameness -- from her dissheveled appearance and guileless manner of speaking to her predictably unusual set of artistic ambitions and meandering lifestyle. What we get is trendy conformity covered by a thin layer of "fringe."