Review: Mistress America Is Noah Baumbach’s Most Accessible Film to Date
4 1/2 out of 5 stars.
10 years after Noah Baumbach’s acidic dark comedy The Squid and the Whale, he seems to be entering a kinder, gentler stage of his career—first with Frances Ha and now Mistress America.
Both films are also co-written by actress Greta Gerwig, and her influence is more than noticeable. It isn’t simply that her voice comes out clear and her characters feel tailor made for her; there’s a sweetness in both films that was absent from Baumbach’s previous efforts—a desire not just to present flawed people who were often unlikable but show that these deeply flawed, often unlikable people can also be lovable. And lovable enough that as a member of the audience, you’re willing to give yourself over to them, empathize with them, and want good things for them. Baumbach has found a less cynical collaborator, and the partnership seems to be working. While his other films may be more challenging and fascinating to view, I would much rather re-watch Francis Ha and Mistress America than any of his others, with a more relatable look at friendships (specifically between women).
In Mistress America, Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a freshman at what appears to be Columbia University (although I don’t think they mentioned it) and struggling to find her voice in the new environment. She starts the year with excitement and eagerness, but as she fails to make friends, succeed in class, attract a boyfriend (Matthew Shear), and get into the literary society, she falls into a depression she feeds with starchy college food. Her mother (Kathryn Erbe) tells her to call her future stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig), who lives in the city and seems to be everything Tracy quietly wishes she could be.
Brooke is a confident, extroverted, go-getting would be entrepreneur with the mind of an artist. From the moment Tracy meets her, she sees she has plenty of stories and even more opinions … most of them questionable. So Tracy, who understands how to write stories but lacks her own, borrows Brooke’s personality to write a story about a girl name Meadow and re-applies to the lit society with a story that paints Meadow as a fun-loving but tragic character. Meanwhile, Tracy and Brooke become closer friends—Tracy possibly mining for ideas, but also becoming real friends. Brooke embraces being considered a role model, and Tracy likes having someone to feel close to in the city.
It should be mentioned that this is Baumach’s second film in a row to have characters making poor ethical decisions in pursuit of artistic success. Unlike Adam Driver’s ultimately intolerable character in While We’re Young, Tracy may be wrong in her actions but has the potential to be redeemed. In fact, none of the characters in Mistress America (as with Francis Ha) are ever presented as villains or unlovable, just as deeply flawed people struggling to navigate the world around them and grow into better people. And even when Baumbach suggests Brooke’s lack of social awareness is callous (such as her meeting with high school classmate played by Rebecca Henderson), that moment doesn’t overshadow the entire movie. She may be oblivious and self-absorbed, but her carelessness with people never comes across as aggressively or intentionally cruel.
The movie has elements of a kinder, gentler take on a film like Roger Dodger, which handles a similar protégé relationship with a mentor too unaware to offer any real guidance. And like that film’s performances by Campbell Scott and Jesse Eisenberg, Kirke and Gerwig’s chemistry stands out as a primary pleasure of the film. It’s fun to watch them navigate the world around them, walking and talking about life and plans with total freedom. Their conversations are entertaining to eavesdrop on.
Gerwig is an actress whose charms can be polarizing (I notice there isn’t really a middle ground with audiences), but she tends to win me over with her slightly daffy style. From the minute she enters the film, misjudging the distance it will take her to make a grand entrance, you can completely understand why she seems to be the life of the party—and why she has to keep getting new friends. And Gerwig takes full ownership of the role; even the way she moves, with her limbs as if slightly detached from the rest of her body but completely aware of what she is doing, feels like a choice she went with and committed to.
If Francis Ha was Baumbach’s ode to French New Wave and While We’re Young his comment on hipster culture, Mistress America feels somewhat like the 80s throwback to the comedy of manners revival of films from the 30s. You could imagine actresses like Goldie Hawn or Diane Keaton playing these roles in the 80s with that 30s “entering the room like a tornado” way that emulated Carol Lombard and Irene Dunne. Gerwig already played a version of that 80s throwback in the remake of Arthur but wasn’t utilized nearly as well as she is here, where she really can hold the attention of audiences who come in wanting a sweet romp.
Gerwig and Kirke still manage to earn the film’s sentimentality and a feel-good ending, although the film does lose some of its momentum about a third of the way through. It almost feels like there are too many characters on screen. Kirke is very good in it and feels like a real, slightly uncomfortable in her own skin girl, although she clearly doesn’t seem like an 18-year-old. Michael Chernus (Orange is the New Black, People Places Things) is also really funny as Brooke’s ex, although his on-screen wife Heather Lind) often feels to be played a bit too shrill for the movie’s overall light touch. She’s probably the only character in this world who feels out of place.
But the movie is overall one that earns its sweetness and good vibes. It feels bright, and both the score and musical selections work to carry the its breezy pace. Baumbach’s directorial hand hasn’t been this light since Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, and it works for this kind of film. After all, if Kicking and Screaming is about men navigating their lives out of extended adolescence, why not give the same treatment to the ladies?
When the film premiered at Sundance this year, Gerwig made a revealing comment about why it’s important to advocate that women write movies about women, saying, “I did go to a women’s college, so I’m going to quote Virginia Woolf, who said that ‘Only women know what women are like when they’re alone.’ That’s why we need women writers, because men don’t know what we’re doing when they’re not there!”
I thought about that comment when I saw the film and was struck that the appealing thing about this movie is the sense of intimacy it has is why it’s funny and emotional—a feeling I also had when I watched Kicking and Screaming, only about watching guys when they’re alone. It captures the reason why our conversations with our most intimate friends, when the phones are away and we feel out of the eye of public scrutiny, seem funny to the people involved—when you make a joke only your friend will laugh at or get into a rapid fire conversation about what might ultimately be nonsense late at night. The film reflects that kind of friendship between these two women just as well as many popular films about “dudes” have and encourages the audience not to judge them for this same kind of nonsense. That’s what makes them so appealing to observe and feel so relatable, regardless of how much you actually have in common.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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