VOD film review: Mistress America
James R | On 20, Dec 2015
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke
“I’ve noticed something about myself that I think would make an amazing character – but I’m saving that for a short story I want to write.” That’s Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig), a New Yorker who’s everything a New Yorker should be: hip, witty and eloquent, especially when talking about her favourite subject. Herself.
We meet her, crucially, through the eyes of Tracy (Kirke), a young college student whose mother is marrying Brooke’s father. They click instantly: Tracy looks up to her almost-bigger sister and Brooke loves being looked up to. Within no time, Tracey has written a short story about her, called Mistress America – a title she takes from a TV show Brooke would one day like to make. “It’ll be its own mythology,” she says, confidently.
The film marks the second writing collaboration between Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, following Frances Ha. This forms the next part in what could feasibly be a trilogy of love stories – but not love stories that involve a man. Together, Baumbach and Gerwig have an almost unrivalled flair for mining plutonic female relationships on the big screen, crafting tales led by women who are complex, believable and, more often than not, hysterically funny.
After Frances and While We’re Young – written without Gerwig – Mistress America marks the lightest entry in Baumbach’s catalogue yet. The excitement of Brooke and Tracey’s new-found sisterhood fizzes in every frame, leaving us as caught up in their bond as much as they are. But, as you’d expect from Baumbach, there’s an acerbic undercurrent that runs through it all, one that skewers the current hipster generation with a spiky wit.
That stems partly from Brooke’s confidence and presumed sense of privilege. “I’m smarter and faster than everyone else,” she observes, matter-of-factly. Gerwig embodies it effortlessly, carrying the arrogance of youth with an infectious optimism. She doesn’t just dream, like Frances did: she actually does things. In fact, she does everything, from writing, working as a fitness instructor and a “freelance interior designer” to trying to open a restaurant. She’s busy being busy.
Gerwig rushes around like a cat possessed, a whirlwind of adorable charm and aloof intelligence. It’s no wonder that Tracy is sucked in. Kirke is every bit as good, visibly walking taller with her own burgeoning sense of self. She moves from wishing she could be in a literary society at university to giving notes to another student, Tony (Matthew Shear, who recalls Jesse Eisenberg in The Squid and the Whale), whom she fancies. Somehow, they both wind up on a road trip with Brooke to an old friend, the perfectly-named Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), and her rich, well-meaning hubby (Michael Chernus).
Every one of these supporting characters is superbly drawn – Tony is followed everywhere by his possessive girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) – culminating in a fantastic confrontation in a luxurious home, in which every piece of dialogue is a bona fide one-liner (“Those pregnant women are super-smart!”). That scene alone contains more laughs than most comedies released this year; the kind of gag-to-minute ratio that marks Baumbach and Gerwig out as natural masters of the screwball genre.
There’s a bluntness to the script that mixes those guffaws with the subtle satire. No one speaks in normal sentences: their conversations consist almost entirely of exchanging factual statements about themselves, endlessly asserting their identity in the same way that people project an image of their life on social media. After an argument arises about who came up with an idea, Brooke snaps at Tracy: “It was one of my least popular tweets anyway.”
As a result, they all judge each other on such surface appearances. “You’re a rich boy,” Brooke decides about Tony. “I’m not rich,” he insists. “You have a car,” she replies. “My dad’s a mechanic,” he comments.
But these characters depend on other people to validate their identities: Brooke is nobody without someone to idolise her. “She could see the whole world with painful clarity but she couldn’t see herself,” writes Tracy in her short story. “And because I was in love with her I decided I couldn’t see it either.”
Tracy, meanwhile, is constantly referred to as “Baby Tracy” by Brooke – a term that, tellingly, is later adopted by her mother – even as she blossoms. “Sometimes I think I’m a genius,” she confesses, “and I wish I could fast-forward to the point in my life when everyone knows it.”
There’s an audible disdain for this entitled ambition, but it’s delivered with visible warmth. These young people create their own mythology and the screenplay admires them for that, even as it laments their slightly tragic reality. Would-be writer Tracy may only have Brooke’s stories to tell, but they’re stories that we enjoy hearing. Their sisterly relationship may not be biologically binding, but it’s life-changing for both. Brooke’s plans may be doomed to failure, but in the sweet glow of potential’s spark, who cares?
The result is a uniquely uplifting yet downbeat comedy; a coming-of-age story that buzzes with youth and sighs with age – a requiem for a lost youth that’s still being found. The magical bubble bursts quietly, almost unnoticeably, in moments of beautiful transparency. One scene sees Tracy bid farewell to Brooke outside a cafe, ahead of a business meeting. Brooke walks off, but the camera lingers with Tracy, as she stands centre-shot. She waits. You wonder if Brooke will come back on-screen. She never does.