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Review: Mistress America

August 28, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Mistress America PosterWhen it comes to pointing out the foibles of this generation, and poking holes in the carefully manicured personas that people build for themselves, there are few more vital voices in filmmaking right now than that of writer-director Noah Baumbach, the modern master of heartfelt social satire.

Having already delivered one of the best films of the year in While We’re Young, the invaluable filmmaker returns with Mistress America, a delightful dramedy that has been co-scripted by Greta Gerwig, his partner and cinematic muse who also brings the title character to sparkling life.

This is one of the director and star’s sharpest, funniest and wittiest efforts yet, perfectly expanding upon the beautifully captured young adult malaise of their last collaboration Frances Ha, with undertones of contemporaries Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is an aspiring writer who has just entered college in New York, where she is struggling to find acceptance on campus, amidst rejection by an elitist group of “cool kid” intellectuals, who carry briefcases and initiate new members into their pretentious literary society by pieing them in their sleep.  Even her budding friendship with likably nerdy classmate Tony (Matthew Shear), is threatened when he seemingly replaces her with his possessive girlfriend (Jasmine Sephas Jones).

Feeling lonely and depressed, Tracy starts hanging out with her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig), a well connected Manhattan socialite who brings Tracy into her world and all of the madcap problems it encompasses.  The two of them spend a whirlwind night together around town, a liberating experience for Tracy, who is looking to be inspired for her next short story, and finds more material than she could have ever bargained for in the whirlwind form of Brooke.

Filled with ideas and things she wants to do, Brooke is someone so conditioned to believe they can do anything, that she somewhat delusionally tries to do everything.  She lives in a commercially zoned building, and is trying to secure investments for the new restaurant that she dreams of opening.  She earns money tutoring and teaching exercise classes, and might still write a novel one day, or perhaps a superhero TV series.  She knows how to cook, has a well travelled boyfriend, and frequently hangs out with a local band.  This all comes in exciting contrast to Tracy’s mundane dormitory existence.

Brooke is a manifestation of the self-absorbed mindset shared by many millennials, always prepared with a clever quip or harsh criticism, and a master of finding ways to make things about herself.  We’re never entirely sure how the intentions of others really fit into her obsessively curated world, yet we are still seduced by her apparent confidence in the exact same way that Tracy is at first.  Tracy is at that age where she is torn between figuring out who she wants to be and trying to be like everyone else, and there is something intoxicating and even dangerous about the way Brooke storms through life.

Great Gerwig is perfect here as both comic foil and dramatic anchor, crafting a memorable and eminently watchable character who is at once guilty of being narcissistic and hopelessly idealistic.  But what turns her performance into an almost miraculous balancing act, are the flashes when we are allowed to feel genuine sympathy towards Brooke.  Behind her often self-aggrandizing exterior, there is something heartbreaking about the way she falls in love with things that are just out of reach, making her an almost tragic byproduct of a generation built on blind encouragement and the need to matter.  These themes of loneliness and desire lead to an underlying sense of poignancy behind the laughs.

When Brooke comes to heavily inspire the main character in one of Tracy’s short stories, a brilliant plot device that allows for a highly literary style of voiceover and gives Mistress America its title, the film starts to explore deeper concepts about who owns ideas.  Especially relevant in an age when pretty much every moment is documented for social media, and quotes that aren’t our own are often freely shared on Twitter, the film asks if we can copyright the things we say to each other, and if shared experiences can ever be fairly used in our own fiction.

Noah Baumbach is a brilliant observer to the fine lines between young adult and regular adult, an expert decoder of the subtle differences that can make both friends and enemies of people who are in different age groups or social circles.  Every scene of Mistress America is like a spectacular display of verbal fireworks, with the dialogue and ingenuity of its wordplay simply exploding off the screen, at once intellectual and instantly relatable.  The look of the film is classically spare, often recalling the intimate style of Woody Allen in more ways than one, with the soft lighting of the frames allowing the writing and uniformly excellent performances to remain on centre stage.

The film reaches its stunning crescendo at the affluent suburban home of Brooke’s ex-boyfriend (Michael Chernus), who is now married to her old enemy Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), just one of many grudge points between them.  This extended sequence is almost farcical, and brilliantly pulled off by all involved, shifting seamlessly between quirky comedy and emotional reconciliation.  The single setting allows the delightfully heightened theatrics to unfold like a great stage play, with the intentions of several different characters ingeniously intersecting, as new faces keep getting caught up in the action.

Noah Baumbach has crafted no less than the great modern screwball comedy, an absolutely delightful and frequently surprising film that understands the value of a perfectly timed pratfall or visual gag to make us laugh, without undercutting any of its emotional centre.  This is a smart and endlessly clever affair for those who love words, and by the time we reach the deeply poignant voiceover of the almost unexpectedly bittersweet final scene, I was unabashedly in love with Mistress America.

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