Mistress America is a 2015 comedy-drama directed by Noah Baumbach. It stars Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke. It is about the friendship between two soon-to-be stepsisters, one who is a sheltered college freshman (Kirke), and the other an older charismatic party girl (Gerwig). I haven’t liked Noah Baumbach's movies (both Kicking and Screaming for its pretentiousness and Margot and the Wedding for its depressing mood), but I thought a comedy would be different, and it wasn't.
Tracy (Kirke) is beginning her freshman year at Barnard in NYC, and is having a hard time adjusting to living away from home (New Jersey) for the first time, as well as making new friends. She has awkward fumblings with her classmates during group discussions; submits her story to the school literary society and scampers away like a scared kid when spotted dropping her story in the submission box (only to be later rejected as a candidate); begins a charming and blossoming relationship with a classmate(Shear), but is disappointed when he begins dating someone else; and eats alone at lunch, putting both a slice of pizza and a bowl of cereal on her tray, and avoiding sweets in order to fit in with her elite peers.
To combat her loneliness, she takes her mother’s advice and calls her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Gerwig) (after scrolling through a list of contacts on her iPhone with a broken screen), who is 31 and lives in the city. Brooke is a whirlwind of big-city chicness, a bon vivant Holly Golightly type who lives in a studio space in Times Square, sings in a band, hobknobs at parties, teaches spinning classes, and speaks of her romantic visions of what NYC should be, all while frequently talking about herself in one breath and captivating the starry-eyed Tracy, who takes notes and writes a story entitled “Mistress America,” starring a carefree and glamorous heroine based on Brooke.
Brooke was an obnoxious character to watch. Gerwig delivered a good performance, but she didn’t have the charm to pull off this selfish and bubble-headed bon vivant. Her character constantly talked at a busy pace that was irritating, like she wouldn't take a breath and let others speak, and she was grossly narcissistic and immature, especially in her 30s, which was pathetic. Although there is a revealing moment where Brooke shows emotional vulnerability while talking to her dad on the phone, it is a brief moment before she returns to her exasperating self.
In addition, there is an awkward and uncomfortable scene where Brooke is confronted in a bar by a former high school classmate who had been bullied by Brooke, and to see Brooke frequently dismissing the former classmate by innocently claiming she didn’t know her and insulting her for still being upset about this bullying was maddening to watch, as Brooke seemed entirely selfish to the point of not having empathy for anyone else and living inside of her own self-made bubble to protect herself from hurt.
Lola Kirke’s performance as Tracy was one of the most realistic in the film, and it was wonderful to see her character gain confidence in herself throughout the film and slowly realize that she is much smarter and much more together than anyone else in the room. Kirke previously excelled in playing a small but memorable role in Gone Girl as a thief, and was virtually unrecognizable in this film. So that is a testament to her versatile acting ability that she succeeded at playing both a college freshman seeing Brooke’s world through rose-colored eyes and a street-smart Louisiana thief who figures out Amy’s deceptive personality much more quickly than others. Tracy was a very identifiable character for anyone who has been a college freshman, for when she was feeling lost at school and trying to navigate the social scene and missing home, those were some of the most honest parts of the film.
The story escalates when Brooke, who dreams of opening a restaurant that is a trendy neighborhood hangout called Mom’s (“So that people can say, ‘Let’s go have dinner at ‘Mom’s’”), goes to Greenwich, CT to take care of unfinished business, namely to confront her former friend and her husband over a money dispute, and along with Brooke comes Tracy and her classroom crush and his insanely jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who arrive at the house, and the screwball comedy antics begins. People are coming in and out of rooms, doing callbacks to earlier lines, there are misunderstandings, and old issues from the past are dredged up. The sequence is an obvious attempt at screwball comedy, but the execution felt rushed and hammy, as if the characters knew what kind of movie they were in. It felt very fake and predictable, and got old and tiring to watch very quickly, especially since very few of the characters were interesting or had depth to them.
However, an enjoyable highlight of the film was the soundtrack by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. It sounded like authentic 80's synth-pop, but it was original music composed by them, and it added a special quality to the film, like romantic and happy and excitement over new adventures.
The film has mixed qualities. Baumbach has an eye for talented actors, comedic one-liners, and self-aware depictions of urban and upscale creative types. But the attempt at screwball comedy by both him and Gerwig came across as heavy-handed and obvious, and did not flow as naturally as it did in the films that they said was their inspiration, After Hours and Something Wild. The film is just under 90 minutes, but the premise and characters wear out their welcome within the first hour, and it gets tedious to watch from then on.