Rarely do I exit a cinema as buoyant as I did having experienced Noah Baumbach’s second cinematic release of 2015. With Mistress America, Baumbach has again teamed with leading lady Greta Gerwig to create a wonderfully acerbic, awkward and achingly poignant comedy that is as intelligent as it is hilarious. Although it could be argued that Gerwig’s Brooke is not the lead character here, she is most certainly the life force of the film. Confident yet clueless, a jack of all trades but a master of nothing, Brooke makes her way through life on a whim – or a series of whims to be precise – developing myriad ideas and opportunities that never seem to amount to anything. It’s not that her ideas are dumb necessarily; it’s just that she doesn’t possess the wherewithal to make them a reality. Her self-confidence is something to behold, masking a vulnerability that she keeps buried deep beneath an emotional façade that pretty much consists her talking about herself relentlessly and little else, usually at a breakneck pace, but you just can’t help but love her.
For 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke), Brooke is exactly the type of person she needs in her life, for a variety of reasons. Struggling to find inspiration and any sense of fulfilment during her first year at college, Tracey reaches out to Brooke, the 30-year-old daughter of her mother’s new fiancé. The stepsisters-to-be seem a perfect match; Brooke has someone onto whom she can unload all of her ideas and opinions, while Tracy gets to break free of her mundane dorm life and experience all that New York has to offer. Lonely, unhappy and depressed about having failed to get her short stories into the college creative-writing magazine, Tracy sees Brooke as the confident, cool, creative creature that she desperately wants to be. Initially rhapsodic in her support of Brooke’s myriad ventures and ideas, Tracy soon comes to see Brooke as a tragicomic figure who is great fodder for a short story that might just earn her the recognition she covets.
When Brooke’s grand plans to open a restaurant suffer a significant setback, she and Tracy, accompanied by Tracy’s college friend Tony (Matthew Shear) and his girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) head to upscale Connecticut to visit with Tracy’s so-called nemesis Mamie-Claire (who is as pretentious as her name suggests) and her husband Dylan (a terrific turn from Michael Chernus), who just happens to be Brooke’s ex-boyfriend. The visit results in an outrageously funny extended sequence in which Brooke sets about trying to convince Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) and Dylan to invest in her restaurant. Secrets are revealed and some harsh truths are realised as a series of hilarious confrontations abound. Gerwig is a marvel to behold here and, when Brooke’s desperation finally arrives at a place of real feeling, we see her stripped of artifice and her insecurities exposed, albeit only for the briefest of moments.
The screenplay by Baumbach and Gerwig crackles with energy, insight, wit and wisdom, delivering a commentary on aspiration, expectation and the desperation to impress. Somewhat less scathing than some of Baumbach’s earlier films (think The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding or Greenberg), Mistress America still has plenty of uncomfortable moments, all of which are played to perfection by Gerwig in a performance that rivals her great work in the equally fabulous Frances Ha. Kirke, who we last saw in Gone Girl, is also fantastic as a young woman who only discovers that what she really wants is actually quite different to what she thinks she wants. The entire cast is pitch perfect in their portrayals of this disparate group, all of whom are plagued by their own neuroses and insecurities. Baumbach is particularly effective at constructing young characters that are far removed from the hackneyed social cliques that permeate so many film narratives and he has achieved this once again here. If you like your humour with an undercurrent of anxiety, dread and anger, then Mistress America is the film for you. Baumbach and Gerwig have somehow created something that is teaming with hostility and hidden agendas, yet is utterly hilarious and heartfelt.