Mistress America (Fox Searchlight Pictures, R)

Mistress 75Mistress America works in large part because it understands its characters.

 

 

 

 

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Writer/director/actress Greta Gerwig first came to some attention due to her affiliation with the mumblecore scene of ten or so years ago, with her performances in stuff like Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, the Duplass brothers’ Baghead, and her own Nights & Weekends. Though I love mumblecore poster boy Andrew Bujalski (who acted alongside Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs, though he has never directed her), Gerwig always struck me as talentless and repellant during this era. It wasn’t until she started working with Oscar-nominated writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid & the Whale) that I started to like her—I think she’s excellent in both 2010’s Greenberg and 2012’s Frances Ha, and her presence seems to have somewhat revitalized Baumbach’s career (they have been romantically involved since 2011), not that his career was ever really lagging in the first place.

Now we have their newest collaboration, Mistress America, which Baumbach and Gerwig share the writing credit for. Mistress America is Baumbach’s second feature film to be released in 2015—earlier this year he had the Gerwig-less While We’re Young, which was excellent, apart from a somewhat lackluster ending. Mistress America is even better, and easily on par with the previous Baumbach/Gerwig collaborations.

What’s interesting, though, is that Mistress America feels more Gerwig than it does Baumbach, which is odd, given that I’ve basically always liked Baumbach, and only ever seem to like Gerwig if she’s working with Baumbach. Much of the humor in Mistress America is of the understated, awkward mumblecore variety, and the rapid dialogue plays like if Whit Stillman wrote a traditional screwball comedy. (Gerwig starred in Stillman’s 2011 film Damsels in Distress, which is easily his worst movie.)

Gerwig plays Brooke, a Times Square-residing 30 year old. Brooke is one of those people who seems to do everything—she’s an interior designer, she’s a fitness instructor, she knows everyone in New York, and, perhaps most importantly, she’s in the process of opening a restaurant. The restaurant reflects Brooke’s personality—it’s to be called Mom’s and is intended to be a restaurant/hair salon/art gallery hybrid. But partway through the film one of Brooke’s investors backs out, and she suddenly has to scramble under a deadline to raise the lost funds. This leads her to Connecticut to try to weasel a few bucks out her ex-fiancée Dylan (Michael Chernus, aka Piper’s brother on Orange is the New Black), but standing in her way is Dylan’s wife Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), who is Brooke’s arch-nemesis.

The straight man to Brooke’s semi-zaniness is 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke), an aspiring collegiate writer who doesn’t know anyone else in Manhattan and who gets connected with Brooke on account of Brooke’s father getting engaged to Tracy’s mother. Really, by the traditional definition, Tracy is the main character of Mistress America and not Brooke. This is fine, though, as Tracy is a compelling character herself—Lola, who is the younger sister of Jemima Kirke (Jessa on HBO’s Girls), has an open, easy likability that calls to mind less her sister so much as someone like Rashida Jones. Tracy, meanwhile, is trying to learn what all she is and isn’t capable of, and of course this in part involves an awkward courtship with a writer schoolmate of hers named Tony (a memorable Matthew Shear).

Mistress America works in large part because it understands its characters—though both Brooke and Tracy do some pretty terrible things, they’re both likably, familiarly human, and seem less like characters you’d encounter in a movie and more like characters you’d encounter in real life. Baumbach here shows he never lost his grasp on college life that he first so skillfully exhibited in his debut, 1993’s excellent Kicking & Screaming. Or maybe it’s Gerwig that is showing this grasp? Regardless, Baumbach and Gerwig keep on proving that they make quite a team, and here’s hoping that their collaborations keep on coming. | Pete Timmermann

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