Friday, September 04, 2015

Mistress America


It is a pleasure to watch writer/director Noah Baumbach work with such confidence in Mistress America, a warm, funny, and brisk variation on themes explored in this spring's very good While We're Young. If Mistress America appears the slighter film of the two at first, stay with it. Baumbach, who co-wrote with leading lady Greta Gerwig, trusts both his cast and his own skill enough to let the heart of the film emerge late amid some spot-on character acting by an ensemble of unfamiliar faces.Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a college freshman new to Manhattan who's having a hard time making friends. Scenes of classes and hall mates and an awkward connection to fellow freshman Tony (Matthew Shear) trip by until salvation arrives in the form of Brooke (Gerwig), the 30-ish daughter of the man Tracy's mother (Kathryn Erbe) is going to marry. Greta Gerwig is already a star in the way that the band Dirty Projectors (who make a brief appearance here) are; that is to say that one seeks out a Gerwig performance for something left-of-center in a very specific way. Gerwig's collaborations with Noah Baumbach have shown a wider audience that she's also a very good actress, and as Brooke she is committed to a kind of brazen mania that - most of the time - hides the bruised heart underneath. It is a remarkable performance.

Tracy is smitten with her older almost-sister, but she is also canny enough to use Brooke as the model for a short story that may gain Tracy admission to a snobby campus literary society. Tracy's narration is the text of this story, a work that from what we hear sounds stylish but immature. Tracy doesn't get how self-aware Brooke is underneath the talk of starting restaurants and creating apps. When Brooke is approached by a high school classmate who harbors an old grievance she apologizes to the woman's former self but not to the adult, because she can't understand how someone could lick old wounds when the search for one's true purpose is still very much in progress. Brooke's quest for financing to start a restaurant called "Mom's" leads to a long, knockabout sequence at the Connecticut home of an ex-boyfriend named Dylan (Michael Chernus) who has the cash to bail Brooke out. Along for the ride are Tracy, Tony, and Tony's hilariously possessive girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones), who isn't above using Tracy's story for her own ends. Dylan turns out to be an insecure mess, still thinking about his college radio show but given bluster by money. Dylan's childless wife Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) puts up a hard outer shell, but she also hosts a book club whose members are all pregnant. Brooke receives a phone call during this sequence that provides Gerwig's best acting moment of the film; listen to the way she responds when her father tells her that "Home is a bus ride away."

The only character in Mistress America who isn't facing uncomfortable truths (until she is) is Tracy, whom Lola Kirke plays with a confidence that we always understand is almost totally misplaced. (Tracy is one of those freshman shocked to receive a "B".) Everyone here is on the hustle to claim their own identity- the mere act of living in New York demands it - and Baumbach and Gerwig honor the search while also wringing out many, many laughs. There is a spiky kind of energy in play here that Baumbach hasn't shown before; it's further indication both that Baumbach is still learning what he's capable of and that Greta Gerwig came along at exactly the right time.

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