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By Rick Kisonak | October 16, 2013

Watching Frances Ha, it hit me: Greta Gerwig is the anti-Zooey. Both actresses are quirky, sweet, funny and attractive but there’s a significant distinction. Deschanel’s built a career as the poster chick for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

The MPDG is a filmmaking term for bubbly cinematic creatures which exist to teach brooding young men to embrace life, stock characters lacking any discernible inner life, like the one she played in (500) Days of Summer.

In contrast, the characters Gerwig’s played, from her mumblecore days to her brushes with Hollywood, have always possessed eminently discernible interiors. Never has that been more the case than with her latest, greatest performance to date.

The subject of Noah Baumbach’s new film-which Gerwig cowrote-is nothing less than the title character’s inner life (more on the real world back story in a minute). The actress is a flaky force of nature in the role of a not so recent college graduate not quite getting her act together perhaps because she’s having too much fun being smart and pretty and promising in the New York of her dreams.

Frances’ two passions are dance and Sophie, her roommate and best friend, played sharply by Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting. The relationship’s a startingly original one. Without a second thought, she turns down an invitation to move in with her boyfriend because, she explains, she’s promised to stay through the end of the lease and Sophie will likely want to renew it. That’s the end of that but the break-up’s barely a blip on her emotional radar.

The split that rocks her world comes when Sophie not only doesn’t renew the lease but marries the guy they’ve made fun of together then moves to Japan with him. Frances was adrift before but now is completely lost at sea. The balance of the picture concerns her often comical attempts to get her bearings.

If you’re experiencing a twinge of deja vu, it might be because Baumbach’s been here before. His first film, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, likewise examined the difficulty a certain type of person can have escaping the gravitational pull of college. The difference between the two films comes down to the effortless charm, charisma and talent of Gerwig who, it’s amusing to consider, was like 11 when Baumbach’s debut was released.

Here comes the real world back story: After making Greenberg together in 2010, they developed an e-mail relationship which developed into a working relationship and eventually, as shooting on Frances Ha began, into a romantic one. Today they’re the industry’s most unlikely power couple. And the filmmaker, not incidentally, is a new man.

Before, he made sourpuss masterworks like Margot at the Wedding. With a world view now skewed more toward that of his new muse, he’s produced something entirely unexpected-a funny, life affirming portrait of a well meaning young woman who’s a work-in-progress.

Filmed in luminous black and white by Sam Levy and filled with references to the French New Wave nobody’s going to get (big fan of Georges Delerue’s 60s Truffaut scores are you?), it’s possibly the year’s most revolutionary film. As Gerwig’s pointed out, it quietly defies convention:

“Movies, theater and television shows-we look to them to tell us what’s important in the narrative of our lives and what moments count. If the only moment that counts is whether or not he likes you, that’s not good enough.” That’s right. This is a movie about gifted, beautiful twentysomethings in which nobody falls in love, the story of a lost but lovable soul looking for her place in the world. In the hands of these filmmakers, that’s good enough and then some.

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  1. TC says:

    Great review! In Australia, this basically went totally under the radar and I missed it. I would say this is a definite DVD blind buy.

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