Welcome to New York!
While Frances Ha may be on a technical level Noah Baumbach’s best, Mistress America is my personal favorite. Easily his most accessible film while also delving into some absurdest comedy, the two-hander of Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig makes a film that’s equally funny and reflective.
Tracy (Kirke) has just moved to New York City for college and is finding less excitement than expected. Her roommate isn’t welcoming, her procrastination is proving to hinder her schoolwork (shocker), and she isn’t making the strong, emotional bonds that she’s been led to believe she would. College, unlike what many may hope it to be, is also, quite often, an awkward experience. You’re shuffled into a room with a stranger you’ve just met, you’re miles from home, and you are expected to build friendships from the ground up after finally having done that in high school.
(Note the bitterness, anyone?)
Luckily for her, her soon-to-be stepsister also lives in the city, and one night, rejected by a boy after growing close to him when both had been rejected from a literary magazine, she gives her a call. Brooke (Gerwig) is thirty and confident, and Tracy has a night of fun, alcohol, and inspiration as she tags along on Brooke’s night. Brooke is seemingly put-together but not strict, carefree with structure, and confident without being cocky, everything that Tracy wishes herself to be. She’s idolizing Brooke without even knowing her, while we the audience are quick to see the false notes she’s hitting every step of the way. Brooke is living in a dream world, one with few consequences, where she can quite literally have it all, and all of this comes crashing down around her at an alarming speed.
Noah Baumbach is pretty regularly a hit or miss for me. The Squid and the Whale is one of his best due to his refusal to dismiss his characters’ disparaging actions, while Greenberg is terrible for trying to get us to care for an equally loathsome character. Frances Ha is a hit because of how honestly it speaks to women in their mid- to late twenties and how out of sync they can feel because of it, while While We’re Young falls flat (I hated it) because it takes the same age group and calls them abundantly lazy and self-obsessed. Mistress America is such a success because its viewpoint on college-aged kids, women on the cusp of thirty, and all that falls in between is largely affectionate. It’s teasing and it’s honest, which is its main appeal, but never does it feel mean-spirited, which was the main, glaring difference in his last two features. Mistress America has an energy I’ve never witnessed in one of Baumbach’s films before, with a quick, didactic pace and a rhythm that never truly relents at only 84 minutes long.
There’s a scene toward the last third of the film where all of the characters are brought together that is one of the best comedic set pieces of the year. It’s oldschool, with simple tactics of staging where characters weave in and out of screen, whether they’re keeping up with one conversation or bouncing in and out of frame with inconsequential questions. It was a great way to utilize the talents of the entire cast and was fun and playful in a way I haven’t seen from the director since Frances danced through the streets in Frances Ha.
The leading ladies are the ones who truly bring the film and its dialogue to life. Written by Baumbach and Gerwig, the dialogue flows between Kirke and Gerwig, the two keeping up a lively banter. Kirke is a delightful find, infusing the character with the right amount of self-righteousness and social awkwardness that is befitting for an eighteen-year-old. Gerwig is always wonderful, and her Brooke is one of her strongest performances. She’s putting on a show, and it’s one we can all see through from the moment she introduces herself to Tracy. She’s so desperately trying to be this confident, New Yorker socialite that she believes she should be, but her self-doubt and anxiety is bursting through. Gerwig has the ability to play characters that at face value are mildly off-putting, but she always makes them watchable and often times likeable. She’s an interesting presence, especially when given roles that fit her comedic styling.
Mistress America is a success because it understands and likes its characters but isn’t afraid to show their flaws and hypocrisies–they’re all trying to achieve something, whether it’s their own personal mandated happiness or what they’re been taught happiness is. It just happens it’s hilarious as well.
Mistress America is out now.