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Mistress America | Review

Sister, My Sister: Baumbach’s Energetic Return to Facades of NYC

Mistress America PosterThe latest in Noah Baumbach’s prolific slew of projects, Mistress America is the follow-up collaboration between the director and actress/muse Greta Gerwig. Though it isn’t as fine-tuned and charmingly buoyant as their 2012 feature Frances Ha, it’s an intelligently droll counterpart to the pleasant yet painstakingly glossy While We’re Young (which reaches theatrical release this coming spring). Witty and well-written, Baumbach’s tone is influenced by a slew of transmogrifying 1980s American films, though the dialogue heavy banter recalls everyone from Howard Hawks to Woody Allen sidestepping on slapstick. Though Baumbach isn’t covering new ground, his post-collegiate privileged characters still inveigled with the paralyzing ennui of adult prospects that graced his lovely 1995 debut, Kicking & Screaming, he hasn’t lost his knack for portraying disillusioned lives lost hopelessly in their own sea of problems.

Entering Columbia as a college freshman, Tracy (Lola Kirke) is experiencing a rather lonely first semester. Composed, intelligent, and seemingly uninterested in joining a clique, she desires most to be invited into the elitist writing guild on campus, an organization with its own peculiar set of hazing. This eludes her, but her emotional drift ceases when her mother urges her to reach out to her soon-to-be step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). In a bout of loneliness, Tracy calls Brooke, who actually lives in Times Square. They get along swimmingly, as Brooke is vibrant, vivacious and quiet charming. Quickly, Tracy is devoting almost all of her time to Brooke, but is soon able to see that Brooke’s life is a façade, and one that’s on the verge of evaporating completely. Yet this only draws Tracy closer to Brooke, and soon she’s fully invested in Brooke’s personal dilemmas.

At times, Mistress America feels overly rehearsed, as if we’re witnessing the end product of one too many takes. It’s tricky with this kind of dialogue, which feels exactly like the kookier side of Tennessee Williams, who is directly referenced in the Baumbach’s grand climax. In a sequence that features a dizzying assemblage of diverse characters, we find ourselves in the glorious sterility of the Hamptons, Brooke’s fragility ensconced in a sticky honeycomb of desperately revolving schemes. This ends up feeling kind of like the much funnier version of Woody Allen’s somber September (1987).

As Brooke, Gerwig is a gangly fusion of studio era charm (she’s got an addictive magnetism many have compared to Carole Lombard, but she’s more earthy, reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn’s early roles in Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, or the privileged WASP of Cukor’s Holiday) and those frustratingly human yet endearing females we used to see a lot more of circa the John Hughes era of characterization Baumbach’s influenced by.

As the protagonist and foil, Tracy, actress Lola Kirke feels like something of a discovery—you may need to go back and rewatch her supporting turn in last year’s Gone Girl as you’ll be surprised it’s the same actress. Here we catch more of the confident, sultry growl in her vocal register. She may possess the less showy role, yet it’s through her that Baumbach channels expertly a certain chapter of discovery with Tracy’s friendship and idolization of Brooke, exemplifying the sort of crippling enablement that is sometimes the result of new connections.

Here, like the academic version of A Star is Born, are two women on alternate thresholds, one on a wavering ascent and the other fumbling awkwardly to rock bottom, but burning brightly all the way. Even at its most familiar, Mistress America manages to be the melancholy, sharply discerning rumination on the (often amusing, very familiar) human reactions to life’s fluctuations and how difficult it is for reinvention. Here, he’s returned to the gentle foibling of personal relationships due, at least partially, to its character’s stumbling over ego and self-awareness.

Reviewed on January 24th at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres Programme. 86 Min.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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