Frances Ha 2012 ****

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Greta Gerwig’s collaborations with Noah Baumbach include Mistress America and Frances Ha; returning to these films after her Oscar-nominated turn in Lady Bird, it’s obvious that Gerwig brought as much, if not more, to the table as her writing partner. Frances Ha is a slight but satisfying character study of a talented young woman struggling to make her way in NYC, lovingly caught in black and white. She’s not quite a dancer, not quite a friend, and not quite sure of where she’s going; Baumbach’s film is set just at the moment when harsh realities begin to bite on youthful aspirations. There’s some amusing diversions, including a trip to Paris where jet lag scuppers Frances’s aspirations to see the city. The title is explained in a throw-away final scene where Frances attempts to force a slip of paper bearing her name onto her mailbox, obscuring most of it; Frances Ha is a film about fitting into society, and as Gerwig dances down the street to propulsive beat of David Bowie’s Modern Love, resourcefully captures the tremulous feelings of youth.

Mistress America 2014 ***

mistress_america_stillWriter/director Noah Baumbach’s output is inconsistent, but at his best, he’s got an eye of character that makes him a unique talent. Working with star Greta Gerwig, who gets a co-writer credit, Baumbach manages to provide a strong companion piece to his similarly offbeat Frances Ha. Tracy (Lola Kirke) falls under the influence of Manhattan socialite Brooke (Gerwig), who has big ideas and a entrepreneurial flair. But it soon transpires that Brooke is anything but the success she appears, and Tracy’s acceptance of that gets Mistress America off on the right foot. It’s almost like The Great Gatsby if Gatsby’s businesses had failed; Brooke is an anti-heroine who is completely wrapped up in herself, and her relationship with Tracy is all the most interesting because the film dares to look at apparently rational people who are slightly deluded about who they are and what they can achieve. It may not be the American dream, but it’s a reality that is universally recognizable. The climax may be theatrical, and the music choices are retro in a way that doesn’t quite fit the narrative, but Mistress America is a snapshot of 2015 that pulls no punches in terms of how millennials can present their lives as constant success despite encroaching failure.

The House of the Devil 2009 ***

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An early work from writer/director Ty West, The House of the Devil is an accomplished tribute to early 80’s horror movies. The set-up is foreboding; Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) gets a babysitting job at a remote and scary looking house; she travels out with her pal Megan (Greta Gerwig), but finds no baby; instead Mrs and Mars Ulman (genre favourites Tom Noonan and Mary Wonorov) offer her four hundred dollars to stay in the house overnight. The true nature of the deception involves a satanic ritual, and Greta Gerwig’s character is one of the first to find herself in trouble. West clearly loves this kind of film, finding room for Dee Wallace (The Howling) as well as lots of deliberately dated film grammar, including some Mario Bava-type zooms. Lena Dunham provides the voice of the 911 operator.

Damsels in Distress 2011 ***

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The rising star of Greta Gerwig, mumblecore queen rising to the heights of Francis Ha, is the main attraction in Whit Stillman’s deft comedy-musical. Stillman scored a notable trilogy with metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, mixing chatty dialogue, offbeat characters and austere pop culture savviness; a tasteful Tarantino, working outside the mainstream. Gerwig plays Violet, one of three girls who set out to challenge their male-dominated campus, and also invent a new dance craze at the same time. It’s fluff, but with an underlying warmth for its charmingly verbose characters that makes for a strikingly original comedy.