I wasn’t sure at first if I could warm up to this movie about a bunch of twenty-somethings in New York, but in the end it was charming and well-observed enough to endear itself, though its charm is a tad on the self-conscious side. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is shot in rather plush and gorgeous black-and-white, evoking memories of Woody Allen’s Manhattan.
At the start of the film, Frances (Greta Gerwig, willowy and luminous) is a 27-year-old young woman stuck in the awkward post-college limbo, struggling to forge her own identity and make a living out of her chosen profession as a modern dancer. You get a sense that she loves what she does, but at the same time there’s a crippling insecurity and sluggishness that prevents her from really making advances in her career. She lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), and the two girls have the kind of close, intense friendship – “like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore” – that you know will never survive the pressures of the real grown-up world. Eventually Sophie is the first one to break away, moving out to a coveted flat in Tribeca that Frances can’t afford, and then to Japan with her investment banker boyfriend. Frances is left aimless and adrift; she moves in with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), a couple of smartass well-off hipsters, then when her dance company gig falls through she visits her parents in Sacramento for Christmas and goes on to do crappy odd jobs at her old college campus.
This doesn’t amount to much of a story, more like a series of setpieces and vignettes about being young and unsure of yourself and your place in the world, which are in turn funny and embarrassing. Frances is both charmingly offbeat and her own worst enemy, making bad decisions, being socially awkward, telling pointless lies and getting herself into cringe-inducing situations, but she is rarely less than adorable thanks to Gerwig’s wonderful performance. Even at her lowest point, there’s some kind of cheerful indomitable spirit to Frances that makes you feel she’ll be alright and figure things out in time. I was half-expecting a romance with one of the hipster boys Frances lives with for a while, but the real love story here is between Frances and Sophie. The movie is a poignant portrait of what happens to friendship when one person moves on to a different stage in life and the other stays behind, while also suggesting that this rift can still be bridged when people care enough about each other.