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A Humble Plea: Look Past the Ukulele

With Frances Ha peeking into select theaters this week, a plea to look past the quirky opening shot.

In the opening shot of both the Frances Ha trailer and the film itself, twentysomething Brooklynites Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) hang out in the park. Frances performs a shambling little tap-dance while her pal Sophie plays a ukulele. The image is so loaded, I've wondered if director Noah Baumbach used it on purpose.

The image of the Brooklyn/Williamsburg/Greenpoint hipster has become more and more a point of scorn or derision in the culture. Just ask the New York Times. On top of that, the image of the Quirky Girl—the pretty girl who's attainability is represented by her going weird things like, say, tap-dancing or playing a silly instrument like the ukulele—has become such a recognizable trope that it's become equally dismissed by audiences wary of being presented something manufactured and false.

I'm here to tell you—I'm here to beg you—to look past the dog-whistle of the ukulele and not write off Frances as yet another product of manufactured quirk. Stay receptive to Frances and to Sophie and to their weird, beautiful, unhealthy, fascinating friendship, which serves as the cornerstone of this lovely, funny film.

Look, I get it. I've turned a corner in Williamsburg and run smack into a Zombie Parade. I've seen more than enough movies where female characters fall down— just fall down, because the mere act of standing up isn't adorable enough (Gerwig also falls down at one point in Frances Ha; POWER THROUGH IT). I recognize the irritations of forced quirk. But I've also seen Frances Ha twice now, and both times, I was struck by just how seriously the film takes the lives and concerns and flaws of its characters.

These are people you know, or people you plausibly could know. Their quirks are shading at the edges, but they're not them. Frances doesn't just shamble on street corners for fun. She's a dancer, and the realities and joys and frustrations of that are much more central to her character than a simple pose. Moreover, Baumbach's movies aren't generally known for being affectionate towards his characters, but Frances represents such a welcome departure from that.

This is a film that's incredibly funny, with much of the humor coming from the characters' own foibles and flailings, but there is always a baseline affection that ties everything together. This isn't a movie that makes it hard for you to love its characters, something that occasionally happens on a show like Girls. Which, also, can I submit another Humble Plea to go easy on the Girls comparisons? They're there, and I just made one not two sentences ago, but I'm not sure if either product is best served by spiraling down into concentric circles over Hannah vs. Frances.

Bottom line, my point and my plea remain the same: there are signifiers at the beginning of Frances Ha that will tempt you to dismiss it as hipster foolishness. For your own good, resist these temptations. Keep your head and heart open to Frances for literally ten more minutes. It won't take long. Its charms are abundant and genuine. Accept them.

Previously: One For Me / One For Them: Julianne Moore

Previously: Working Actor - Adam Driver


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