It’s been three years since Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s first major collaboration as writers and filmmakers burst into cinemas and the public consciousness.1 A story of a young woman sensing the end of a lifelong friendship as the freedom of youth gives way to the dull demands of adulthood, Frances Ha was a sharp shift away from Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding, marrying an overt aesthetic debt to the French New Wave with Baumbach’s (and now Gerwig’s) trademark witty dialogue. Mistress America, shot (but not finished) in between Frances Ha and Baumbach’s last released film, While We’re Young, shares the Ben Stiller-led film’s almost freewheeling approach to narrative but adds to it a much more compelling and nuanced look at creativity – a tongue-in-cheek focus on prose far more preferable to the documentary ethics lecture that While We’re Young dipped into.
Tracy (Lola Kirke) starts her freshman year at a college in New York, struggling to make friends and finding her vague romantic intentions towards classmate Tony (Matthew Shear) completely ignored. Her mother’s impending re-marriage, though, gives her reason to seek out Brooke (Gerwig), her 30-something prospective stepsister. She lives in Times Square, seems to be a creatively energised socialite and holds a long-standing grudge against her former best friend, who allegedly stole her fiance and her Ed Hardy-esque T-shirt design concept. Their meeting is a revelation for Tracy, who finds in Brooke not only a free-spirited guide to the expansive cityscape but also the inspiration for a short story, “Mistress America”, which she plans on submitting to her college’s exclusive lit society.
The film starts off with a not entirely convincing (and lightning-fast) college montage: it’s gag-heavy but lacks the authenticity of Baumbach’s brilliant debut, Kicking & Screaming. Once Gerwig is in the picture, though, the film suddenly finds its remarkably assured footing, racing across the city, through concerts (with neat Dirty Projectors cameos), business meetings and apartment lock-outs before settling in to its climactic chamber piece, which is set in a Connecticut mansion as Brooke pitches her ex-fiance Dylan (a scene-stealing Michael Chernus) her new restaurant idea. This half-hour chunk is hysterically funny, Gerwig and Baumbach’s rapid-fire dialogue neatly accompanied by Jennifer Lame’s punchy editing – the way reaction shots are used throughout the film never fails to get a big laugh.
It’s something of a foil to Frances Ha, both films dealing with the notion of adult responsibility and direction in life, but Mistress America is more bittersweet, its very affecting denouement a celebration of friendship as much as it is an uncertain affirmation of character over events. At times, it’s almost like Baumbach taking on Young Adult, but only if Diablo Cody’s script had its own Nick Carroway; it’s easy to mock Brooke and her worldview (“I wasn’t raised that way” and the litany of screwball-pulled dialogue quirks), as we’re positioned to see the world through Tracy’s eventually opportunistic eyes, but Gerwig’s performance is so compelling that she never feels merely like a human punchline. The same is true of Kirke, whose character is much more than the film’s ‘straight man’ role. She’s often deadpan – and very funny at it – though her unrequited love subplot is a refreshing change of pace, a cringe-inducing openness that’s nothing if not intensely relatable.
Though Dean Wareheim and Britta Phillips have been doing some music for Baumbach’s films since Mr. Jealousy in 1997, here their synth-heavy score is the thumping heartbeat of the film, aping New Order and kindred spirits to Keegan DeWitt’s music in last year’s Land Ho!. Whilst Mistress America might not have its own exuberant “Modern Love” moment, it does certainly stake a claim on a certain Toto song, which builds in the background noise of a bar scene only to hit its climax at the apex of an awkward conversation between Brooke and an old schoolmate.
Cinematographer Sam Levy, who also shot Frances Ha and While We’re Young, has done another chameleonic job here. Mistress America unfolds as if seen through a thin layer of glass, colours slightly muted and tending towards browns and dark blues in night scenes (which capture the film’s autumnal setting), complemented by a wealth of natural lighting later in the film.2
Like While We’re Young, Baumbach’s latest seems to be a film of low stakes and minor ambition, yet its execution is far more satisfying. With almost endlessly quotable dialogue, two truly winning lead performances and an energetic score, Mistress America is yet another comedic triumph from the creative partnership of Baumbach and Gerwig.
Around the Staff: