A single girl trying to make it in Manhattan: Filmmaker Noah Baumbach isn't exactly exploring new territory. But Frances Ha, his alternately beguiling and bruising comedy, makes you fall in love with the idea again. It's impossible not to fall hard for Greta Gerwig, who wrote the script with Baumbach and plays Frances with such smart, rumpled radiance that you bask in her glow.
Frances is hardly a success. Her faith in her talent is so far unshared by anyone who might hire her. She's also 27, past time for a dancer's big break. Her support system since her Vassar days is best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting's daughter). They live in Brooklyn "like an old lesbian couple that doesn't have sex," and rebel against the norm of marriage and kids. But when Sophie meets a guy, a rich guy, Frances is left to rebel alone. The similarity to Girls, the groundbreaking Lena Dunham series on HBO, is amplified by the casting of Adam Driver as new-roommate material. But Frances Frances goes her own way. So does the movie. With a deceptively light touch, Baumbach and Gerwig stir the muddy waters of money, class, sex, love, friendship and the pain of betrayal. You don't expect a tantalizing sweetheart of a movie to touch a raw nerve. This one does.
Shooting in resplendent black and white, cinematographer Sam Levy recalls the French New Wave and Woody Allen's Manhattan. But Frances rarely occupies the glamorous corners of the Big Apple. Even a quick trip to Paris that she can't afford leaves her out of place. At a Vassar reunion, Frances finally reconnects with Sophie (Sumner is a true find). Absent is a glib resolution. Baumbach, in his most compassionate film since The Squid and the Whale, catches Frances in the act of inventing herself. It's a glorious sight to see.