With the futile excitement of a treadmill running at max speed, Mistress America, like its characters, is always going nowhere as fast as possible. Those characters lead run-on and half-started lives while they search for a New York experience that probably doesn’t exist anymore. This is familiar territory for writer-director Noah Baumbach, who’s While We’re Young explored a similar, if older pocket of East Coast hipster culture earlier this year. But rather than being a regression or a rehash, Mistress America brings with it a new cast of charmingly narcissistic Baumbach ditherers to love, mock, and walk around the neighborhood with.
The film stars Lola Kirke (Gone Girl) as Tracy, a freshman at one of those New York colleges where the classes are structured like group therapy, and the cool kids are the aspiring writers with leather briefcases. An adroit-for-her-age thinker but chronic slacker, Tracy’s self-sabotaging solipsism makes her defining early weeks away from home an entertaining series of cul-de-sacs and avoided opportunities. “College is like one of those parties where you don’t know anyone, but all the time,” she tells her mom, who’s soon to remarry now that Tracy is out of the house.
In both personality and appearance, Kirke’s Tracy feels cut from the same cloth as Frances Halladay, the equally adrift, but more upbeat heroine of Baumbach’s winsome Frances Ha. The resemblance gets even more striking when Tracy makes contact with soon-to-be sister-in-law Brooke (Greta Gerwig, who played Frances), a fashionable 30-something of many interests and occupations. She’s a woman for who the world isn’t just an oyster, but an entire seafood buffet – so long as someone else is picking up the cheque.
If Tracy is Frances the younger, then Brooke is her dark mirror, a person who knows exactly what they want at all times, and pays no mind to the collateral damage she rings up while chasing it. She’s a hummingbird that zooms between activities and people to suck them dry of sustenance, before moving onto whatever’s next. Gerwig (who co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach) never makes Brooke someone easy to pin down with a single adjective or diagnosis. Depending on the situation, she’s naïve but well-meaning, or a fully actualized jerk, a combination perfectly balanced by Gerwig. When Brooke is confronted by a former high school classmate ready to unload some old baggage, the first thing she does is casually, reflexively diss the out-of-towner’s taste in theatre.
Like While We’re Young before it, Mistress America’s familiar story structure takes on surprising contours when guided by such self-absorbed characters. Mistress America compresses many expected beats from a “flawed mentor/devoted mentee” arc into just one act, with Tracy being as genuinely drawn to Brooke as she is eager to mine her imperfections for writing and personal inspiration. Tracy is just smart enough to know what kind of movie she’s in, just not that it’s a Baumbach version of that movie, where the joke is usually on the person who thinks they’re the smartest one in the room.
Rapid-fire pacing and dialogue let Mistress America bounce back and forth between laughing with and laughing at its characters. A lengthy stretch midway through the film takes a detour to the posh suburban home of Brooke’s ex (Michael Chernus). The scenario starts absurd, and only builds from there, with pregnant women, nosey neighbors, and a pair of Tracy’s friends all played off and against one another like a soundboard. It’s a livewire setpiece, sharply framed and bursting with screwball patter that craftily withdraws the film’s critical eye toward Brooke, before scanning the room, and picking Tracy as the next target.
And like While We’re Young as well, this sends Mistress America down a more conventional, if slightly darker path toward wrapping up the stories of these characters. Like Brooke, the hurricane of energy Mistress America sweeps you up in does plenty to overshadow any defects. “Agreeing with her was too much fun not to,” Tracy says in the film’s opening narration, speaking as much to her relationship with Brooke as she does your experience with Mistress America. This is jerk comedy where any perspective gained by the characters often feeds directly into their narcissism; the satisfaction comes not from seeing these people grow, but instead realize how self-improvement can sometimes require a lot of self-destruction first.
Though he used a quote from Ibsen to open his last film, Mistress America reconfirms Baumbach’s empathy for those paralyzed by Chekovian inaction. As with While We’re Young, and Frances Ha, the characters of Mistress America are all mired in the woulda, coulda, shouldas that set in from the moment adulthood is supposed to start. To come back to these themes a third straight time might hint at Baumbach’s own inability to move forward by leaps and bounds, but Mistress America caps off a wryly funny and specifically insightful trilogy on chronic growing pains.
Baumbach, Gerwig, and Kirke give wheel-spinning a good name with Mistress America.