Contrasts in Character: Watching ‘Frances Ha’ and ‘The Way Way Back’

By: Daniel Reynolds

It takes a special performance to carry a film so thoroughly so as to urge you from its one moment to the next. This past weekend I saw two films, the fairly recent Frances Ha (it’s seen a gradual release for the last few weeks) and The Way Way Back (released last Friday) that were both driven wonderfully by actors fully inhabiting characters that, on the script page, perhaps should grate more than they do. Granted, only one of the films truly works to support the great performance, but it is special all the same.

The enchanting, dancing Frances Ha.

The enchanting, dancing Frances Ha.

Let’s start with Noah Baumbach‘s latest film, ‘Frances Ha‘. Baumbach’s previous two films (the rewarding Greenberg and the absolutely toxic Margot At The Wedding) acted as character studies centering on people you’d probably want to escape from quickly upon first meeting. Structurally, we are similarly drawn into ‘Frances Ha’ and asked to regard this wandering young woman and, as the title implies, her unfinished sense of self. Set in and around New York City, and shot in Woody Allen approved black-and-white, the film drops us in the lives of a loose assembly of 20-somethings as they navigate their post-college years. There are Frances (Greta Gerwig), the aspiring dancer, and Sophie (Mickey Sumner), working in publishing, as the best friends for life; Lev (Adam Driver playing, I assume, himself) and Benji (Michael Zegen) as aspiring artists; and a host of other people to pop in and out. Yes, this sounds familiar. But, but!, while the film embraces some of the usual tropes of casually broke NYC living, it wisely focuses on the equally casually radiant Gerwig for inspiration.

Following Frances around various addresses in NYC (and including sojourns to Paris and Sacramento), Gerwig navigates her character through the usual binary set of modern living challenges: making money and being social. On the job front, Frances wants very much to glide through life as a dancer, but, largely through Gerwig’s presence, feels only reliably clumsy in her attempts at that life. Make no mistake, despite her frustrating and perhaps overly whimsical choices, we very much want Frances to get her chance at success; unlike the aforementioned protagonists of Baumbach’s previous films, Frances’ faults only drive us to love her more. She tumbles from place to place, job to job, but Gerwig’s acting urges us to urge Frances onward.

Meanwhile, Frances’ social life is realistically portrayed as a series of random hangouts and phone calls. Her best friend Sophie grows apart from her, then falls back into her orbit; men appear in the frame like comets only to zoom out again. Each one, true to the typical 20-something viewpoint, is the star of their own drama but we are more than happy to see them as supporting actors in the central narrative of the life of Frances. Do not be afraid of the black-and-white cinematography: ‘Frances Ha’ and its star, Gerwig, absolutely glow.

Drowning in the familiar characters of The Way Way Back.

Drowning in the familiar characters of The Way Way Back.

For the second part of this double bill, I took in ‘The Way Way Back‘, co-written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (you may remember them posing with Alexander Payne after winning Oscars for The Descendants). In this film we meet a broken family on summer vacation. Actually, they are a semi-repaired family, fused together from two broken marriages featuring the eternally put upon Toni Collette as Pam and Steve Carrell as the stand-in dad Trent, in smarmy insufferable mode. The hero of the film is the hunched and awkward Duncan (played by Liam James). In Duncan’s world, he, like Frances, is something of an outsider. But while Frances sought fulfillment, Duncan would really like to just have some understanding and someone to talk to. Unlike Frances, he is not yet the star of his own life (or really, his own movie). We want Duncan to proudly straighten up, and the film makes it very clear immediately how it will go about forcing that change.

The change comes once our gangly teen meets the lounging, Pac-man playing, water park employee rebel Owen, played by Sam Rockwell, who at this point should be arrested for the sheer amount of movies he has stolen. Away from his troubling family, Duncan gets to do all those cool things that always seem to happen in coming of age, summer of change stories: a party here, a goofy dance-off there, a climatic moment on a water slide. You know, the usual. It is here when the movie comes alive, as Rockwell casually seduces the audience with his perfectly honed ruffian persona. It also helps to have Maya Rudolph, with her admittedly thin character, show up and Rash as a decidedly un-Dean character.

The problems with ‘The Way Way Back’ emerge after the film reverts back to scenes with Carrell, Collette and the cast of two dimensional characters that pop, almost literally, out of the woodwork to populate the film. We meet Allison Janney as the boozy, loud-mouthed neighbour; she deserves better. Then we get Amanda Peet (complete with neon sign saying “Home Wrecker” above her head) and Rob Corddry (somehow underused again!) as the old pals of Trent. There are also some one-note mean teen girls sprinkled in there, but since they exist in a perpetual mood of insolence, it’s hard to remember names (were they given names?). Duncan does meet Susanna, played by AnnaSophia Robb, but the path of that storyline is nothing we haven’t seen before. No, the joys of ‘The Way Way Back’ only slide into the frame with the water park and Rockwell just riffing with whoever and whatever he sees. It works.

Both films travel a well worn narrative path but while ‘Frances Ha’ keeps finding ways to dance away from the expected, ‘The Way Way Back’ is forced along before splashing out on its conclusion. With Frances, the picture, the life, feel complete. You’re happy in her successes and sigh as she flails into failure. With ‘The Way Way Back’, Duncan’s success feels vaguely hollow. You wish you could see a different film; maybe one with Rockwell’s Owen in his younger days, careening through New York City in black-and-white.

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