Review: MISTRESS AMERICA

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

With Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, While We’re Young, and now Mistress America, writer/director Noah Baumbach has proven himself as an exceptional writer/director with an ability to tell realistic stories about major turning points in life.  He has an extraordinary ability to create both genuinely funny and dramatic moments involving intriguing characters who come across like real people one could encounter in real life.  After having watched his last three films (Ha, Young, America), I noticed that these movies could be considered a trilogy of adulthood.  

Frances Ha focuses on a character in her twenties attempting to pursue her dream of dancing in a world that demands a steady paycheck, while her best friend pursues a steady adult relationship and a successful career.  While We’re Young deals with a couple in their early forties struggling with a midlife crisis, and would rather run to the comfort and excitement of more youthful adults than face their own mortality.  Mistress America actually falls somewhat in the middle of those movies.  Baumbach’s latest life-study examines the relationship between a young college freshman and her future stepsister, a thirty-something-year-old who has goals and aspirations, but can’t seem to make any of them work for her.

Lola Kirke stars as Tracy Fishko, a socially awkward college freshman who wishes to pursue a career in writing.  At her mother’s behest, she decides to look up her future stepsister, a bright and vivacious lady named Brooke (Greta Gerwig).  In Brooke, Lola sees the woman she thinks she wants to be—confident, exciting, charming, funny, and little bit wild.  Brooke has various dreams of achieving success, but due to multiple reasons, none of these plans have panned out.  As Tracy gets better acquainted with Brooke, she becomes enchanted by her enthusiasm, but at the same time, can’t help, but feel some pity for her as she realizes that some of those failures are Brooke’s own fault.

Baumbach, who co-wrote the screenplay with Greta Gerwig, has made another outstanding film that deals with real life issues and problems.  The parallel development of the two main characters works wonderfully here.  The wild, effervescent, and hilarious Brooke needs the more quiet, reserved, and introverted Tracy to react.  The chemistry and the development of that chemistry is so well written, and superbly executed.  Most of Baumbach’s films have the element of comedy, some to a lesser extent.  With Mistress America, the introduction of Brooke character and the sequences that follow shows Baumbach going full-tilt into screwball comedy territory.  Both Baumbach and Gerwig’s writing sparkles the most in these extraordinary scenes, requiring the direction and performances of the cast to luminate just as brightly.

Greta Gerwig delivers a tour-de-force comedic performance that never falters.  It truly is exciting to see her rapid-fire delivery, her seemingly unlimited energy, and her wild-eyed expressiveness.  Lola Kirke, in her first major lead role, delivers a truly lovely performance as the lonely, somewhat insecure, but occasionally acerbic Tracy.  Both she and Gerwig share a beautiful chemistry that feels completely natural and never forced.  I am certainly impressed with her work here, and hope to see more of her in future projects.   The movie also features great performances by Jasmine Cephas Jones (Nicollete), Heather Lind (Mamie Claire), Matthew Shear (Tony), and a hilarious turn by Michael Chernus of Orange is the New Black fame.

With Baumbach and Gerwig’s latest collaboration, I found myself often laughing hard, but also appreciating the masterful writing and direction.  I also particularly enjoyed the 80s-style synth-driven score by Brita Phillips and Dean Waream.  I truly marveled at the excellent performances of Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke who took the material and direction and followed through beautifully.  The types of characters in the story and some of the beats may not be new, but everyone involved keeps the material fresh and exciting.  Fans of screwball comedy and the previous Baumbach films mentioned above should truly adore this film. As I previously stated, this film along with Frances Ha and While We’re Young all fit together as a trilogy and would make for a great triple feature.

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