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A Petra Pan travels boroughs and beyond in 'Frances Ha' ★★★ 1/2

Often when you're young, and sometimes even when you're older than young, adulthood is something ventured into partway, like a wading pool. The deep end your friends are already inhabiting looks a long way away.

"Frances Ha," director and co-writer Noah Baumbach's beguiling new picture, stars Greta Gerwig (they're a couple in real life) as a 27-year-old New Yorker originally from Sacramento. Like thousands of others in the city, she's pursuing an artistic life at her own unpredictable speed, with dubious financial results.

She's an apprentice at a struggling dance company and between relationships. One of the roommates she acquires in "Frances Ha" pronounces this big, beautiful dork of a woman "undateable," which is casually undermining and sort of ridiculous as friendly insults go.

Gerwig made a lot of indies and bigger-budget mainstream films of varying quality before Baumbach put her in the brilliant prickly pear "Greenberg" opposite Ben Stiller. She's honesty incarnate on screen and her timing isn't quite on the same wavelength as anyone else's. She charges through the film, which is under 80 minutes minus credits, as Frances gets in and out of one living situation and social encounter and emotional growth spurt after another. The film may be small, but it's really good.

Baumbach's previous works include "The Squid and the Whale" and "Margot at the Wedding," and the fearless astringency in both was formidable. "Frances Ha," tailored for Gerwig and an ode to dreamy moths of all kinds drawn to Manhattan and environs, takes it easier on the audience, though the central character endures a lot.

The story follows her from Brooklyn to Chinatown to Sacramento (home for the holidays), a brief, jet-lagged jaunt to Paris and a return to her college in Poughkeepsie, all the while trying to navigate her best-friendship with Sophie, played by the equally distinctive and naturally witty Mickey Sumner, who is the daughter of Sting (the former Gordon Sumner) and Trudie Styler.

This friendship is the core of "Frances Ha." Frances clings to Sophie as her big-city life raft, and they're great pals, supportive, seeing each other through dubious boyfriends, commiserating over cigarettes and liquor. The neighbors think they're "like an old lesbian couple that doesn't have sex anymore." But then Sophie moves out, and starts dating a man named Patch, and Frances is thrown for a loop.

The push-pull of Frances' emotions, her easily engaged feelings of guilt over little things and big things, her delight in whipping up omelets for a passel of new friends, the way she stomps around the boroughs with her "weird man-walk," as one roommate puts it: Gerwig makes her a full and affecting creature, not quite an adult, but nudging toward 30 and scared about what lies ahead. "I'm so embarrassed," Gerwig says early on. "I'm not a real person yet."

Baumbach clearly is in love with the actress, and the character, and the city's eternal possibilities for self-discovery. You may watch "Frances Ha" relating to little of it, or a lot of it, but this "road movie with apartments," as the director (shooting here in velvety black-and-white, recalling Woody Allen's "Manhattan" in its texture) so aptly put it, is informed by a buoyant, resilient spirit. That's new for Baumbach. Love's funny that way.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Frances Ha' -- 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating:
R (for sexual references and language)
Running time: 1:26
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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