Take a base of screwball comedy, add a dash of French New Wave, stir in some 1970s Woody Allen sensibility and top with a dollop of Clueless – now if you can wrap your head around all that, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect from Mistress America. This is director Noah Baumbach’s 8th feature film, and the third (after Greenberg and Frances Ha) to feature his life- and screenwriting partner, Greta Gerwig.
As with much of Baumbach’s work, this film is a consummate mix of (sometimes quite manic) comedy, whip-smart dialogue, wry observation and uncomfortable truth. It’s certainly much funnier than, say, his breakthrough The Squid and the Whale but it still packs enough of an emotional punch (particularly in the poignant coda) to make it more than simply a comedic excursion into the lives of these characters. Baumbach shares a filmmaking viewpoint with sometime collaborator Wes Anderson; although I tend to think Baumbach is harder on his characters than Anderson. He also has a love of French New Wave filmmkaing, particularly the films of Francois Truffaut, and that influence comes through very clearly at times in this film.
The audience surrogate of Mistress America is Tracy (Lola Kirke). When the film opens, she’s a freshman at New York’s prestigious women-only Barnard College (a kind of sister-school to Columbia University, which sits across the street). Living away from home, she’s lonely and alienated; her only lifeline are calls to her mother (Kathryn Erbe). In one of these calls, her mother suggests Tracy look up Brooke (Gerwig), who lives in New York. Tracy’s mother is planning to marry Brooke’s father, meaning the two will soon be step-sisters. After some tentative missteps, the two finally meet in Times Square. Despite being some 12 years older than 18-year-old Tracy, Brooke is a restless spirit. She has many irons in the fire, though none of them really seem to be hot. Her latest venture is a concept restaurant to be launched with her (absent) boyfriend, Carlos. But when Carlos bails on both the restaurant and Brooke, she’s undeterred. She decides to plough on regardless, despite the looming financial disaster. She also has some seriously unresolved issues with her former flatmate Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). Initially, Tracy is fascinated by the mercurial Brooke, and starts writing a fictional story based on her for a creative writing class. But she soon comes to realise there’s more to Brooke than her disarmingly ditzy exterior betrays.
Mistress America layers its tones and themes, driven by Baumbach and Gerwig’s crackling dialogue and finely drawn characters. Central to this of course is the character of Brooke, whose interaction with Tracy and (later in the film) Mamie-Claire strips away her facades and reveals her true nature – which turns out to be more complex and interesting (but yet considerably uglier) than even Brooke herself imagines.
The third act of the film takes place at Mamie-Claire’s house in semi-rural Connecticut. In days gone by, it could be the setting for a Noel Coward style comedy of manners; or an Agatha Christie manor house murder mystery – and in a way, it’s both here. Certainly, there’s an element of social and cultural difference at play, but Baumbach and Gerwig also explore the darker side of their characters (notably Brooke and Tracy, but others too) laying bare their fears, passions and misdeeds.
Greta Gerwig’s excellent performance powers the film. She channels Katherine Hepburn in her portrayal of a frenetic yet aimless Brooke. Her timing is impeccable, and she delivers the lines with such verve, you sometimes need a moment to catch up with her. Lola Kirke (Mozart in the Jungle) is a neat foil as the more subdued and thoughtful Tracy. Heather Lind (Boardwalk Empire) is wonderful as the snarky Mamie-Claire; and special mention should be made of Michael Chernus (Aloha) as Mamie-Claire’s husband, Dylan.
I thoroughly recommend Mistress America, though with one major caveat: this is a film made for film nerds. As I freely admit to being a film nerd, I enjoyed it. However, its blend of madcap humour and scathing character exposition won’t be for everyone.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Seth Barrish, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus and Kathryn Erbe
Release Date: 29 October 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television