In the new light and airy comedy from director Noah Baumbach, Mistress America, eighteen year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a New York college freshman and she’s having a tough time fitting in. “You know what it’s like being at a party and you don’t know anyone,” Lola tells her mom (Kathryn Erbe) on a call. “It’s like that, all the time.”
Mom is about to marry a widower, and he has a daughter in New York. Wouldn’t it be good for Tracy if, between studies, she met up with her prospective older step-sister and got to know her? Tracy, who is finding that neither New York nor college is exactly what she expected, follows through on mom’s idea and makes a call. “Hi, this is Tracy Fishco,” Tracy begins. “My mom said I should call you. My mom is marrying your dad.”
Brooke (Greta Gerwig) is delighted to hear from her younger, soon-to-be step-sister. “We need a sleep-over party!” Brooke declares with the kind of enthusiasm that accompanies every idea that suddenly springs to her ever overactive mind. In fact, Brooke appears to be so continually busy as she whirls around the city that she hardly has time to notice that, in reality, she’s merely surviving and could possibly fall apart at any moment. The two women meet in Times Square, take an immediate liking to each other, and set off on a NYC adventure with the ever ebullient Brooke leading the way. Tracy, who has a talent for writing and is taking notes for a college paper she’ll eventually call Mistress America, observes of her older step-sister, “Her beauty was that rare kind that made you want to look like yourself and not like her.”
From there, Mistress America leaps off on a farcical journey that will take Brooke, Tracy and some accompanying college friends to Brooke’s ex-boyfriend’s home in Connecticut. Brooke hopes to pitch an idea regarding her plans for a future restaurant, and both the ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus) and his wife (Heather Lind) owe Brooke a financial big one.
Written by both director Baumbach and actor Gerwig, Mistress America runs for a brief eighty-four minutes, and time flies by. Why all of these oddball characters are together in the Connecticut house, with Brooke leading the way and Tracy observing it all, is something best discovered on your own. The complications build at a breakneck speed and much is very funny; its final act is played out with the rhythm of a perfectly timed and well directed farce as characters run through the house constantly firing accusatory zingers at each other until they eventually turn on young Tracy. In a truly odd and eccentric conclusion, all characters huddle together in the main room as though members of a new critic’s book club and discuss the freshman’s Mistress America essay, tearing its content to shreds and handing a stunned Tracy a list of literary questions to answer at her own convenience.
The strength of the film is in the casting, particularly with its two leads, Gerwig and newcomer Lola Kirke. With her flaky, dreamlike and often unpredictable style, Gerwig can’t help but attract you; she pulls you in. What we get to know of her character we generally like, at least at first, whether it’s her off-centered observations of her Catholic following geologist father – “It’s so weird that someone so into rocks is into Jesus” – or her views of monogamy for college freshmen. “There’s no adultery at eighteen,” she tells everyone younger than her in the car to Connecticut. “You should all be touching each other all the time.” But there are other things about her that show a potential unpleasant side, like the fact that she was probably one of those mean girls while at high-school or that she turns on Tracy for no particular reason and angrily declares that Tracy’s mother, whom she has yet to meet, is a slut and an atheist.
If you recall last year’s Gone Girl, you’ll remember the lasting impression left by Lola Kirke as the young trailer-trash petty thief with the southern accent. Here with her more subdued manner as lonely New York freshman Tracy, Kirke is a quietly effective balance to Gerwig’s hyper Brooke. Plus, she can deliver a funny line straight. After completing a sweat-inducing aerobics class on stationary bikes she tells Brooke, “I feel I just went swimming in my clothes.”
Ironically, the film doesn’t close well. Certain elements are wrapped neater than expected with a fade out that fizzles rather than concludes; in other words, it doesn’t quite arrive. Plus, because of its breezy, lightweight nature, if it wasn’t for the notes taken for this review, much would already be forgotten. But being in the company of Brooke and Tracy in NYC then together with the whole eccentric cast at the house in Connecticut as all elements merge is time entertainingly spent, even if much will already be evaporating from memory as you cross the parking lot.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 84 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)