Film Review: Mistress America

Baumbach And Gerwig Reunite For Some Screwball Sophistication

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
Mistress America
“I’m more of a Samantha
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Indie film writer-director Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) and indie film writer-actress Greta Gerwig (LOL, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead, Lola Versus) obviously found a kinship with one another working on the films Greenberg and Francis Ha. The perfectly matched pair reunite for their newest, literate, belated coming-of-age, self-loathing, NYC-based, dysfunctional family comedy. Although their previous collaborations were comedies, Mistress America marks their warmest, most audience-pleasing laugh-getter to date.

The film stars Lola Kirke (the fictional trailer-trash con-woman from
Gone Girl and the actual daughter of the drummer from Bad Company). She plays Tracy, a wannabe writer and first-semester college freshman who finds herself lonely and isolated at an Ivy League-adjacent school in Manhattan. (“It’s like being at a party where you don’t know anybody, all the time,” she assesses.) Smart but lacking in confidence, she can’t seem to fit in. A stab at joining the school’s literary society (“They serve cheese and wine and all carry briefcases!”) ends up in humiliating failure. Back on the suburban homefront Tracy’s divorced mom is on the verge of marrying a man Tracy has never even met. In an attempt to engage her seemingly unhappy daughter, Tracy’s mom puts her in touch with her fiancé’s adult offspring.

Tracy’s soon-to-be-stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig) turns out to be an impetuous, adventurous force of nature. To Tracy, this motor-mouthed Manhattan hipster is the greatest thing since cronuts. Brooke sings with bands; she runs SoulCycle classes; she crashes fabulous parties; she tutors rich people’s kids (even though she’s never been to college). Know that swanky new hotel in town? Brooke did the interior design for the lobby of a nail salon in the parking lot behind it. The title of the film, in fact, derives from a comic book she dreams about writing one day. (“I’m an autodidact,” declares the blonde whirlwind. “Do you know what that means? That’s one of the words I taught myself.”) Brooke is overflowing with dreams and stories and limitless possibilities. And as it turns out, she isn’t totally full of shit, either. She’s had enough charisma and moxie to carry her through to age 30 with no education, no job and no clear direction. Whereas Tracy has no idea what to do in life, Brooke has way too many ideas. Her current, most fervent hope is to open a restaurant with mismatched plates that also cuts hair and functions as a country store during the day.

The second Tracy hooks up with Brooke, her life changes. Quietly smarting from her parents’ breakup, Tracy finds in Brooke an instant “big sister” and the sort of family connection she’s craving. Plus, Brooke’s fabulous lifestyle—confabulated as some of it might be—offers Tracy a glimpse of the wild, bohemian New York City she’s only seen in books.

But of course, Brooke’s life isn’t quite as perfect as it seems. Every day is lived on a wing and a prayer—which works fine for someone in their teens and 20s, but becomes rather played out once one hits the big 3-0. Most of Brooke’s friends have moved on to families and careers. Brooke is still flying the party banner, burning the candle at both ends. But her time is running out. When her fiancé (who’s “off in Greece, betting against the economy or something”) dumps her—subsequently depriving her restaurant of its primary investor—Brooke goes into freefall. On the spiritual advice of her psychic and the increasingly adventurous urging of Tracy, an uncharacteristically desperate Brooke looks up her former boyfriend and her ex-BFF who are off living the rich, easy life in suburban Connecticut.

Here the film evolves into an extended, madcap stage piece with Brooke and Tracy invading the chic, glass-walled home of Dylan (Michael Chernus from “Orange is the New Black”) and Mamie-Claire (my current super-crush, Heather Lind from “Boardwalk Empire” and “TURN: Washington’s Spies”) to make the case for Brooke’s crazy restaurant. Dragged along in tow are Tracy’s nerdy college crush (Matthew Shear) and his jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Added to the mix are several nosy neighbors and a pregnant wives’ book club. From this point forward, Baumbach and Gerwig’s script goes into overdrive, slamming together the New York intellectual humor of Woody Allen and London drawing room wit of Oscar Wilde. The dialogue flies fast and furious, the one-liners hit a fever pitch, everyone dashes in and out of scene, confessing to various long-held secrets. In the end, of course, everything comes out in the wash.

As audience members we know that Tracy has been following Brooke around partially out of loneliness, partially out of hero worship and partially because the gal’s incredible fodder for short stories. Tracy writes down Brooke’s every crazy/brilliant observation and transforms her life into fiction. This is the film’s one major plot contrivance. Everyone in movies and books is obliged to get livid at writers when they find out they’ve inspired a fictional work. It provides that third-act breakup scene so popular in romantic comedies. And that’s pretty much what it does here, severing Tracy and Brooke’s sudden connection neatly and formulaically. But Baumbach and Gerwig have created such indelibly daffy characters and imbued them with such genuine emotion that it’s easy to get swept up in the moment. It’s rare to see films built around female friendship, and
Mistress America is genuine in its ambitions. Our protagonists are thrown together by the weird whims of family relationships, and end up creating a sincere sisterhood. It can and will survive a bit of narrative convenience.

Baumbach’s cast is a demonstrably talented lot. Gerwig long ago proved her fearless comedic abilities, and they’re put to good purpose here with Gerwig breathlessly embodying the charismatic whirligig of a girl at the center of it all. Kirke matches her intensity as the more grounded of our makeshift sisters, and she shares the sort of chemistry with her costar that usually only gets talked about in romantic comedies. At a mere 84 minutes, the film moves like a cat on fire, dispensing more hilarious lines of dialogue than a viewer can absorb in a single sitting. Though it touches on themes of youthful egocentrism, broken trust and the grudging acceptance of reality,
Mistress America is is no mopey, mumblecore indie. It’s just blissful, manic fun—with a lingering hint of the serious, smart and sophisticated.
Mistress America

you’re more of a Miranda.”

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