I won’t lie to you. Noah Baumbach is climbing rapidly to the top of my most admired directors list. Last years While We’re Young was a sensational film (you can read my review here). Prior to that he made Frances Ha, starring his real life lady love Greta Gerwig, which didn’t excite me near as much as While We’re Young, though it was still a solid, well made indie comedy. Mistress America has Baumbach reuniting with Gerwig once again as he examines the lives of young folk living in America. As you might have guessed by my gushing over the director, I did like Mistress America very much, but there’s more to this film, and my admiration of it, than a simple thumbs up.
The film takes place, as with Baumbach’s prior films, in the hustle and bustle of New York City. The Big Apple is an instantly recognizable, uncannily cinematic and irresistibly exciting locale for shooting a film and Baumbach wisely matches the vibe of the city with the energy of Gerwig’s character Brooke. Before we’re introduced to Brooke, however, we meet young Tracy. Tracy, played by Lola Kirke, is a plucky, though naive, college freshman. She aspires to be a writer and we witness her in various campus activities, be it study groups or discussing a super exclusive literary club at the school. Tracy’s mother is due to marry a new beau and encourages young Tracy to reach out to her fiancé’s daughter Brooke, who’s also living in the big Apple, as the two are soon to be step-sisters. Brooke gladly takes Tracy under her wing and Lola is soon after swept away in the tornado of Brooke’s life.
What’s interesting about Mistress America is it’s a film that examines the mind, and life, of a constant dreamer. Brooke is a wide eyed, powder keg of anxious energy. She’s a T-shirt designer, an interior decorator, an entrepreneur, and most recently a restaurateur. The restaurant she hopes to open is as idealistic as can be. She wants to open a place where people can come eat, relax, have fun, throw parties and everything in between. A lofty goal, no doubt, but we’re pulling for Brooke, who’s charismatic charm makes us believe she can do anything she puts her mind to. Tracy is equally smitten with the idea, though she see’s that Brooke is the constant dreamer who may not be able to pull it off in the end. Being a writer, Tracy puts her adventures with Brooke into a short story which grants her entry into the aforementioned exclusive literary society. Naturally Brooke finds out that Tracy’s story puts her in a bad light and the two have a falling out. Of course this is short lived as the two have grown to really love each other as genuine siblings. It’s a sappy, touching end to the film, but it feels natural and welcome.
Much like While We’re Young before it Mistress America examines the lifestyles, mind sets, and struggles of those in their mid to late twenties and the generational differences that come with age. Brooke is older than Tracy in the film, I believe by ten years give or take. It’s curious that Tracy, the youth, is the one that see’s the world a little more for what it is rather than Brooke, the consummate starry eyed dreamer. Both actresses knock it out of the park. Greta Gerwig is instantly believable, to the point that you could imagine this being a little more documentary than fictional narrative. Lola Kirke, who I’ve never seen in anything prior, has a smoky allure that perfectly contrasts her characters naiveté. She’s vulnerable, but not to the point of being breakable. She’s confident, smart, witty, but still craves the big sister mentorship of someone like Brooke. This is some of the best casting I’ve seen in a film in a long time, with each supporting cast member holding their own, breathing life into every frame of the film’s modest run time.
I will say I didn’t enjoy this as much as While We’re Young. I’d dare to say that film was one of my favorite’s from last year, and it could very well be that I saw more of myself and related to the characters in that film more so than in Mistress America. That’s not to say Mistress America is not worth watching. It absolutely is. It’s a funny, touching, entertaining ride that makes you wish you could spend more time with these people. They’re the sort of people you want to get to know and be around, warts and all. Noah Baumbach is absolutely on a roll and I can’t wait to see what he does next.