Mistress America (2015)

She would say things like, “Isn’t every story a story of betrayal?”  No, that’s not true, I thought, but I could never say that.  I could only agree with her.  It was too much fun to agree with her.

This is the opening voice over from Tracy, the main character in Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Mistress America, and the general narrative thrust of its story.  It follows Tracy (Lola Kirke) as she gets off to a rocky start as a freshman in college, having a hard time meeting people and making friends.  She immediately gets off on the wrong foot with her roommate.  She submits a story to the snobby literary club on campus, only to be rejected.  Tony (Matthew Shear), the one guy she finally manages to strike up a friendship and tenuous romantic connection with turns out to have a girlfriend.  Things are not going well.  And then, at the prompting of her mother who is getting re-married at Thanksgiving, she meets Brooke, her soon-to-be step-sister.  Brooke (Greta Gerwig) is 30, living in Times Square, and a person who is full of life, energy, and ideas, but lacks in actual follow through.

This is Baumbach’s second film released this year, following on the heels of While We’re Young this spring.  While I enjoyed that film, there is a whole different sense of vibrancy and life to the characters and dialogue here.  I believe that a lot of this is due to Gerwig, who shares a writing credit with Baumbach on this film, like she did on Baumbach’s 2012 film Frances Ha.  After seeing the quality of the output from Baumbach and Gerwig together on two projects, they might be one of my favorite active collaborations right now.  Whatever she is bringing to the table when she works with Baumbach, it really works and is an extra spice that really takes things to a whole other level.

Mistress America 3

Brooke, with an entrance that is so subtly comedic it should be iconic, feels like the embodiment of a certain kind of New York City resident.  She is bursting with optimism, self-promotion, half-baked ideas, contradictions, and aspirations.  On the surface, those traits could eventually become grating and make for a frustrating character in a lot of films (I feel like I’ve seen the insufferable side of this coin in several other films).  In Gerwig’s hand’s though, the character is completely endearing and magnetic, even if she seems like three bad breaks from utter failure and even though at times she seems oblivious to people around her (She has plans to open a restaurant and takes Tracy to see it, and Tracy asks twice in conversation, “Can I get a job as a waitress here?” to no avail).  Brooke is a character who people want to be around and she is also a character who is performing without a safety net throwing caution to the wind, and it makes her utterly captivating, like she casts a spell.

Her outlook on life, naturally manages to rub off onto Tracy, with interesting results.  Early on, Tracy clearly lacks self-confidence.  She finds inspiration from Brooke, even going so far as to write a short story with a main character heavily influenced by her first impression of Brooke.  Interestingly, the character in her short story seems doomed to failure, and Tracy describes herself as a “pallbearer at the funeral.”  When difficulties arise in Brooke’s restaurant plans, Tracy is right by her side to support her and encourage her to see her vision through.  It could be that she subconsciously is egging Brooke on for more material, but Tracy seems to genuinely root for her.  The more Tracy hangs around Brooke, her self-confidence grows, almost too much.  During a confrontation in which it’s pointed out how she used to be so nice, Tracy replies, in a very Brooke-like way, “I’m the same, I’m just the same in another direction now.”

The film hits a high point when Tracy, Brooke, Tony (because he has a car), and his girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), because she has trust issues, take a trip to the Connecticut suburbs to sell Brooke’s former best friend and nemesis, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) and her husband, Brooke’s (possibly stolen, possibly not) ex-boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) on an investment opportunity.  What follows is a straight up screwball comedy involving about eight characters (including the neighbor and a random pregnant woman) in one house with many rooms, names being deliberately repeated, people paired off momentarily into separate rooms, and lots of laughs.  It’s a surprisingly impressive high-wire act of moving pieces and fast dialogue that is wonderfully pulled off and very entertaining as some of the dialogue becomes more absurd.

In the end, as much of a blazing star as Brooke is, the film is about Tracy and her progression from being a person struggling to find her way to a person who learns to find her voice and begins to become her own person.  Her experiences with Brooke and the trip to the suburbs of Connecticut are a catalyst for that change.  And when she does finally begin to find her own voice, she is better off for it and able to find the proper balance between low self-esteem and too much self-esteem.  It is a microcosm of how much transformation takes place in college for four years as this takes place over just her first semester.

Mistress America is easy to recommend on the strength of the dialogue and the central performances of Kirke and Gerwig, and should be seen for the Connecticut suburbs material alone.  It is a genuinely funny, observant about its surroundings, and completely endearing, just like Brooke.  The added flavor of Gerwig’s influence in writing with Baumbach is a combination that just works for me.

Mistress America

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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