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Greta Gerwig (Frances) and Mickey Sumner (Sophie) in Frances Ha.

A Noah Baumbach film has never lacked for smarts, at least the acid-tongued, angst-ridden sort that doubles as blessing and bane. From Kicking and Screaming through The Squid and the Whale to Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, his work has always had a clever mind. But only in Greenberg did it show the beginnings of a real heart, and only thanks to the singular presence of actor Greta Gerwig, whose long-limbed insouciance stole the picture right out from under Ben Stiller's trademark navel-gazing.

Since then, Gerwig and Baumbach have become off-screen partners and now, in Frances Ha, an on-screen writing team. He should count himself lucky. On camera almost continually, she brings to every frame a free-floating indomitability and a philosophy to match: Call it the bearable lightness of being.

The setting is New York, where so many iconic females in fiction have made their home – Audrey Hepburn's Holly or Diane Keaton's Annie or Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie or, lately, Lena Dunham's Hannah. What separates Gerwig's Frances from the others is the presence of an absence: She's a straight and attractive woman of 27 who lacks any consuming interest in the quest for a man. Why?

Sorry, not because of any feminist principle or consuming career ambition. Far from it. Instead, a wannabe dancer with scant talent and less money, drifting through her 20s and other people's apartments, Frances lacks a consuming interest in most everything. But she's aware of her failings and, for once, self-awareness isn't a burden, which is precisely what makes her intriguing. Frances is sublimely untormented. There's a bounce in her ungainly step; she has the courage of no convictions.

To that end, Baumbach shoots his curious heroine in sprightly black and white, re-surfing the energy and the chatter of the French New Wave – in lieu of Jules and Jim, meet Frances and Sophie. Former college buddies, the two are roommates and the early frames catch them gamboling through Central Park. "We're like a lesbian couple that doesn't have sex," jokes Frances, but it isn't entirely a joke. In fact, Gerwig's contribution to the script shines a fascinating new light on that old social cliché – that women are friends with other women in ways that men aren't with other men.

Her reappraisal is fresh yet casual, never earnest. Certainly, Frances and Sophie share much more than living space. They share dessert, secrets, clothes, a communicative shorthand, a platonic bed, frequent "I love yous." For Frances, this close and caring relationship with a woman is the template for a future relationship with a man – just add sex. Not for Sophie. She lands herself a rich guy, moves in with him, makes the necessary compromises, feels the inevitable frustrations. Frances disapproves, not from jealousy but from a genuine belief that he's not the right guy, and the only time she flares into anger is when Sophie pooh-poohs her concerns: "Don't treat me like a three-hour brunch friend."

Effortlessly, then, the picture uses the ideal of female friendship to explore competing views of romantic love. Sophie sees that men, being different, demand a different definition of love, and adulthood exacts its concessions – appropriately, and splendidly, a bespectacled Mickey Sumner (better known to some as Sting's daughter) plays her with a mix of unruly passion and hard-edged pragmatism.

By contrast, Frances conflates the sexes and adheres to a "kindred spirit" notion of romance. Yet, coming from a woman who can't pass a mirror without an appraising glance, is that view just an elevated form of narcissism? Or is it merely childish, a failure to grow up like those adults in an extended dinner-party scene, all the well-adjusted types who treat her with stifled yawns and patronizing politeness?

Perhaps they're right. Indeed, on a last-second weekend getaway to Paris, the world's romance capital, Frances leaves alone, sleeps off the jet lag alone, eats alone, walks the Champs-Elysées alone, and flies back alone. It's a funny sequence that, like so much else in this deceptively laid-back movie, has a serious undercurrent too – a brave case of dramatizing the sheer uneventfulness that marks so many of our events.

Happily, a character can't be pitied who's incapable of self-pity. It's a tribute to Gerwig's performance, somehow both clumsy and elegant, that she wins us over despite ourselves, that we come to appreciate her aimlessness in a goal-oriented society, come to admire her resilience even as the drifting continues. At the end, when the strange title finally gets explained, maybe her drifting will stop, maybe not. Maybe that last "Ha" will lead somewhere; maybe it's just a guffaw and she'll remain a life-long joke. Either way, this much is sure: Frances is that rare specimen who floats above her fate. Frances, in the shallows of her good heart, is made to endure.

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