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'Frances Ha' review: A knowing salute to the understudies

***1/2 (out of four)

Many people will recognize themselves, or someone they know, in “Frances Ha”—though there may be an even split between those who specifically recommend the film to the people who would most appreciate it and those who merely say to a third party, “Oh, man. This totally reminds me of [fill in name]. But I’d never tell her that.”

Passive-aggressive and expertly generational, “Frances Ha” is either hilarious or devastating, and probably both. Featuring characters long-explored in indie cinema and most recently as the focus of “Girls,” “Frances” is a film that’s incredibly wise about its characters’ faults and idiosyncrasies yet never feels like star/co-writer Greta Gerwig and director/co-writer Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg”) are judging. Just telling it like it is, with a helpless shrug and a genuine tear.

Gerwig plays Frances, an awkward mess of a 27-year-old whose best days can still be called shenanigans and worst days seem like perfect epitomes of everything that’s wrong. What is wrong, exactly? She’s the person the world doesn’t seem to have time for, the creative type without the talent to cut it, the high-culture fiend without the funds to support her habit. Frances proudly declares that she and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) are the same person, but it’s only true in their quirks. Sophie’s got a job at Random House and a boyfriend she likes enough, while Frances understudies at a dance company (where they shout “Understudies, out!”) and splits with her boyfriend over her loyalty to living with Sophie. Who soon moves to live with a lesser friend in a better neighborhood.

The mentions of buzzy authors and artists isn’t being elitist; “Frances Ha” touches on how culture divides people and how pretentiousness can be unintentional when it comes from oblivious elitists. Someone asks Frances if she ever gets to Paris and doesn’t mean anything by it, but that doesn’t make the question any less absurd for someone whose precarious finances constantly change her living situation.

Whether it’s a dude texting, “Ahoy, sexy,” or Frances returning from an international trip just to make a meeting that could have been rescheduled, the film is beautifully attuned to mid-20s ridiculousness. A few lines don’t sound like something anyone would ever say (Frances notes, “I have trouble leaving places”), but the resentments and inside jokes between friends couldn’t shine through any stronger. It’s a girl movie for both genders, a testament to the double-edged liberation sword of loneliness and swallowing pride.

Meanwhile, love and work look like the toughest thing in the world, but only for those on the outside.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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