[This is a re-post of my Mistress America review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The film opens in limited release today.]
Filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s earlier films definitely had elements of humor, but they were all tinged with a sense of melancholy and a pinch of anger. His 2012 comedy Frances Ha, though, marked a significant change in direction for the writer/director, as he crafted something lighter, funnier, and frankly happier than before. As evidenced by his other 2015 film While We’re Young and Baumbach’s latest, Mistress America, the playfulness of Frances Ha was not an outlier, but a signifier of things to come. Reteaming with Frances Ha star/co-writer Greta Gerwig, Mistress America marks Baumbach’s most playful film yet, and while its farcical third act goes a tad over-the-top, the winning lead performances by Gerwig and newcomer Lola Kirke, as well as a John Hughes-esque tone and score make it a delight to take in.
Mistress America revolves around a young college freshman named Tracy (Kirke), who enters university in New York as a lonely, impressionistic aspiring writer. When she has trouble making friends and fails to make the cut to gain admission to the secretive yet esteemed Mobius Lit Society, her mother suggests she seek out her future stepsister, Brooke, a vibrant, late-twenties woman living in the heart of New York City. What ensues is a night full of concerts, parties, and a lot of bonding, which gets off to a fitting start as Brooke introduces herself via a grand entrance walking down steps in the middle of Times Square.
Brooke has an air of confidence about her that Tracy—looking for a mentor or some sort of guidance—responds to right away. But the confidence is maybe a little misplaced, as Brooke is very into talking about things and people, but actually has little to show for her imagined ambition. She’s one of those people that puts up a good front, but makes you wonder if she’s ever followed through on anything in her life. She currently hopes to open a restaurant to finally fulfill a dream, but when her boyfriend pulls out as an investor, she’s left scrambling to save the venture.
After Tracy’s first night with Brooke, she immediately sets out to write a new submission to the Mobius Society inspired by what she sees in Brooke—a woman full of dreams and ambitions that will likely never come to fruition, despite her optimism. Tracy and Brooke strike up a genuine friendship, and while the young Tracy is transfixed by Brooke, it’s clear to the audience that Gerwig’s character doesn’t really have it all together herself, even though she thinks she’s playing the part of the “older, experienced” woman to Tracy’s young, naïve teenager. Brooke describes herself as an autodidact (explaining that “autodidact” is a word she taught herself) when she tells Tracy she never went to college, she seems to ignore every other sentence Tracy says and instead switches the topic to something she would prefer to talk about, and she sprinkles words of wisdom into conversation on a regular basis.
But she’s fun, and though Tracy is able to see through some of Brooke’s veneer, she can’t help but continue to feel drawn to her. Tracy’s a young woman looking to find out who she wants to be and what she wants to become, and in Brooke she sees someone free and seemingly happy with her life, and so she begins to alter her own actions and language to mirror Brooke’s somewhat harsh and seriously self-obsessed outlook on life.
The breakout star of Mistress America is Lola Kirke, who had a small role in David Fincher’s Gone Girl last year but who really gets the chance to shine as this film’s lead. She plays young and impressionable without being overtly mushy or wide-eyed, bringing a complexity to the character that may have been lost in a different kind of performance. Her comedic skills are spot on as she’s able to go toe-to-toe with Gerwig in what just may be Baumbach’s snappiest script yet. Seriously, this thing is full of jokes, and they come at a rapid fire pace that puts the film squarely into screwball territory.
Gerwig is also excellent in the film, though as with Frances Ha, there are times when the character’s flaws are more irksome than cute. But Gerwig nails the arc, imbuing Brooke with layers that at first you thought may not really exist, and her incredible comedic delivery is unmatched.
And while the film is indeed funny, the main plot device concludes in a somewhat odd fashion, which I won’t spoil here other than to say I became a bit thrown off by the third act’s more farcical aspects, however funny they may have been; the tonal shift is sharp and somewhat abrupt. If there’s a significant difference between Frances Ha and Mistress America, it’s that the latter is more plot-driven than the former, and in that regard Mistress America feels like it could be a solid companion piece to While We’re Young—in more ways than one. But taken together, these three films form a bit of a trilogy about finding one’s identity in a world that expects you to have it all together once you reach the age of 23.
Tonally, Baumbach succeeds in Mistress America where many others have failed in that he’s essentially made a John Hughes movie. The heavily 80s-influenced score works wonders to accompany both the rat-a-tat dialogue and the quieter, more emotional scenes. It’s reminiscent of Hughes’ mix of comedy and drama (not to mention introspectiveness) without being derivative, though Mistress America tilts more heavily towards the comedic side. Even the somewhat zany latter half of the film feels like it could’ve existed in a John Hughes universe, albeit executed in a slightly more grounded manner.
There have been countless films made about youth and finding oneself in the world, but with Mistress America, Baumbach continues to explore this relatable theme in a way that’s equal parts refreshing, familiar, and hilarious. Though the tonal shift is slightly distracting, the film mostly works thanks to tremendous performances from Kirke and Gerwig and a whip-smart script that is filled to the brim with jokes on jokes. If Baumbach is interested in making honest-to-goodness comedies now, he’s somewhat mastered his version of the genre already. As long as he’s churning out films as enjoyable as Mistress America, I say keep ‘em coming.