Synopsis: A lonely college freshman’s life is turned upside down by her impetuous, adventurous soon-to-be stepsister.
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus
Director: Noah Baumbach
Running Length: 84 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: I think it’s only fair to say that I went into Mistress America prepared to hate it. Like, really hate it. The preview alone made my eyes want to roll right out of their sockets and hide in a dark corner. How could I possibly go for a movie featuring a director/actress combo that so angered me in the past? Could I get over my past feelings and my preconceived notions and take Mistress America for what it was and nothing more? It was sure to be a test of my mettle and I’m happy to report that I showed some serious moxie and came out on the other end with a cap on the poison pen I had prepped.
In 2012, director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig teamed up for Frances Ha, their black and white NYC fable following a spirited woman figuring out her place in the world. Gerwig was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work (she also wrote it along with Baumbach) and the film achieved some major indie cred for its two collaborators. Lots of people loved it and I…didn’t. It was a mish mash of pish posh scenes presented more than performed and so rough that it felt like the motto on set was “One take only…no second chances!”. The result was, for me, a tiresome 86 minutes.
So you can understand why the first trailer for Mistress America, touting the same collaborators working together again, had me fearing the worst. And while Gerwig still grates on my nerves and speaks the majority of her lines as if she was reading the ingredients on a tuna can, overall the film is a pleasant gem of a picture that has snappy (if ever so highfalutin) dialogue and nicely tuned performances.
Tracy (Lola Kirke, Gone Girl) is a freshman at Barnard College struggling to adjust to the college experience and living in The Big Apple. Her mother is about to remarry and, upon hearing that her daughter is stressed, suggests she look up her soon to be stepsister that also lives in NYC. Brooke (Gerwig) is a fast-talking, big-dreaming social butterfly that has a lot of ideas but no realistic plans on how to achieve her goals. The two hit it off quickly, with Tracy looking up to her big (step)sister with admiration and using her as inspiration for a short story she’s hoping to submit to a snobby writing society at Barnard. A road trip for Tracy and Brooke (with two college acquaintances tagging along) to Greenwich, NY proves to be their Waterloo as both women confront certain realities involving their future.
What I found myself enjoying about Mistress America was the rhythm that Baumbach and Gerwig provide for this tale. There are moments of casual, laid-back dialogue punctuated by rapid-fire exchanges (expertly edited by Jennifer Lame) that can leave the viewer (and the actor) slightly breathless. A conversation between Brooke and a high school classmate starts small but builds to a comically unexpected climax, as does a late in the game argument between Tracy and a variety of naysayers who call her out on her writing ethics.
Kirke makes for an interesting central figure, not quite deep enough at the beginning but perhaps a bit too knowing by journey’s end. She is, after all, not yet 20 and I find it hard to believe that a month or two worth of life experiences could influence her so completely. As mentioned before, Gerwig never met a line she couldn’t go halfway with but you can’t say that her character is one dimensional or without nuance…her best work actually comes when she’s not speaking at all but listening and taking in. Special mention should also go to Heather Lind are Mamie-Claire, Brooke’s rival for popularity and love. Lind’s character manages to be both villain and hero of the film without it seeming out of place.
This is probably the first Noah Baumbach movie I’d willingly watch again. At 84 minutes it flies by and there’s enough comedy goings-on to warrant another look to catch what you may have missed the first time. Gerwig continues to grow on me and if the two keep making movies as self-assured and entertaining as Mistress America, I’m willing to leave my poison pen at home in the future.