Greta Gerwig stars as the titular Frances, a struggling dancer in Brooklyn who, at 27, isn't ready to accept that she's too old to be chasing this particular dream, and even too old to be living hand-to-mouth like the archetypal – and obsolete – New York bohemian she is.
Though primarily a character study, Frances Ha is also a breakup movie, only in this case the breakup is between two heterosexual women (Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter, is nicely believable as Frances' nerdy ex-roommate). Life without her BFF sends Frances into a manic spiral. Nobody seems to care about her anymore, and New York becomes a soulless, hyper-competitive city where everybody but Frances seems to have it made.
Though she sounds like one of those insufferably quirky heroines that have populated indie comedies since Annie Hall (and indeed, Frances Ha's black and white photography recalls another Woody Allen classic, Manhattan), Frances – the "Ha" in her truncated surname suggests both her goofy nature and her stifled development – is actually bearing witness to the cruel realities of trying to make it as an artist in 21st century NYC: She's surrounded by snobs. Money is an ever-present source of stress. And any attempt at spontaneity usually winds up in disappointment.
In other words, Frances might wish she's in another film made in another decade, when zany characters like hers would become the toast of the town, but she's stuck in cynical 2013 and that stuff doesn't fly anymore.
Baumbach – who cowrote the script with Gerwig – has, over the years, given us many caustic protagonists who prove difficult to endure (e.g., Greenberg), but Gerwig's inherent likability lifts Frances Ha out of the depths. Frances may be another neurotic Baumbach outsider, but her heart is so pure that you can't help but root for her, even though she's probably best off giving up and leaving town.
Frances Ha may bring to mind the cable TV series Girls and the dry 2000 comedy Ghost World, but it has its own unique personality. It's cute but not too cute, funny but not too funny, depressing but not too depressing. Without giving anything away, I suspect the ending may turn off certain viewers and delight others. It all comes down to what you believe someone like Frances truly deserves. But I think if there's hope for her, there's hope for the rest of us.