Tracy (Lola Kirke) has moved to New York to go to college but, as she tells her Mum on the phone, she is finding is a lonely experience; she feels like she is at a party where she doesn’t know anyone, all the time. Enter Brooke (Greta Gerwig), an older woman who is as adventurous as Tracy is quiet. The two women’s parents are soon to be married, and this gives them a chance to spend time together. Tracy finds Brooke fascinating, and soon makes her the subject of her new short story, but without her knowledge.
Mistress America, written by Gerwig and Noah Baunmbach, and directed by the latter, feels like a look into the life of a very specific person at a very specific time in their lives. Kirke, as Tracy, is lonely and impressionable, but somehow manages to have a beautiful grasp of the English language at such a young age; the writings of hers we hear read aloud are surprisingly honest and well written. Kirke – sister of Jemima, star of Lena Dunham’s Girls – makes the character almost a blank for Brooke to print herself onto, but still manages to make the audience root for this lost soul that she portrays.
Greta Gerwig plays the ‘Mistress America’ of the title, Brooke. Gerwig seems unafraid to make Brooke a pretentious and overwhelming character – exactly the type that Tracy is looking for in her life – and one who is happy to speak in hyperbolic and flowery quotes about her life, and seemingly never listen to anyone else around her. The rest of the cast is made up of Dean Wareham, Joel Marsh Garland and Matthew Shear.
Baumbach and Gerwig’s screenplay is littered with selfish and hilarious situations and statements, such as Brooke not listening to a word Tracy says, only chiming into a conversation about a frozen yogurt machine to tell Tracy that she watched her own mother die. This means that the film fits into not only the world of Baumbach films, but also the stories that are coming out of young women in New York at the moment; ones that are self involved and ultimately quite horrible people, but the ones who draw people to them in their droves. There is something of early Woody Allen to the delusional characters at the centre of the film, as well as the rhythms of the dialogue, and the slightly silly but hugely entertaining climactic scene.
As director, Noah Baumbach takes the audience on a journey of discovery with Tracy, and reminds us of the unpleasant but magnetic, yet shortsighted people we used to be. Baumbach makes sure that Brooke treads the line between stunted woman child and fully functioning adult, so that the audience and Tracy don’t quite realise the truth about this seemingly engaging woman until it is almost too late. The rhythms of dialogue are beautiful, and Baumbach seems to take pleasure in playing with these. There is nothing really new in Mistress America that we haven’t seen in Baumbach’s earlier films, but the film still feels fresh and engaging, and the director still has a skill for capturing selfish lives that are almost always embroiled in their own problems.
In all, Mistress America is a film about a woman lost in a heap of problems of her own making, but cannot see the truth for the lies she has built up around her. Both Gerwig and Kirke work well together, making the audience fall in and out of love with their characters throughout the film, and Baumbach reminds us that it is in lo-fi, self created drama that his talent for directing lies.