While pretty much every Noah Baumbach film could be considered a comedy, his 2012 collaboration with Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha, was a noticeable shift for the writer/director. There’s still plenty of bite in his work, but Frances Ha saw Baumbach shifting away from the more caustic tones his films could sometimes take. That shift has carried over to both of Baumbach’s 2015 features, While We’re Young and Mistress America. With the latter, Baumbach reunites with Gerwig, who now serves as his co-writer in addition to being his star, and the two have created a knockout character for Gerwig in Brooke, a New Yorker approaching her 30s with all sorts of ideas for herself, but an inability to create ways to achieve those desires.
Interestingly enough, though, Brooke is not the main character of Mistress America. That role falls to Tracy (Lola Kirke), a freshman at Columbia whose mother (Kathryn Erbe) is about to marry Brooke’s dad. Tracy feels lost in New York, and her mother encourages her to reach out to her soon-to-be-stepsister in the hopes of creating a sisterly bond. The early scenes capture Tracy’s feelings of loneliness succinctly, with Tracy becoming slowly lost in her classes. In an attempt to make her presence known, Tracy submits a story to a literary society on campus, where those selected for membership are hit in the face with pies early in the morning, then handed briefcases to carry as status symbols. Tracy fails to make it in, but begins to bond with a classmate named Tony (Matthew Shear). Their relationship takes a turn, though, when Tony begins dating Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who’s suspicious that all of Tony’s actions will lead to him cheating on her.
It’s around this point that Tracy finally reaches out to Brooke, and things become a lot more insane. Brooke is basically a self-propelling whirlwind, and her forcefully outgoing personality syncs up to Tracy’s awkward, unconnected personality in a way where both appear to be having a great time, even if their interactions are more a way for both Brooke and Tracy to talk at, rather than to, each other. Brooke is particularly self-involved. She frequently drops her dead mother into unrelated topics. She refers to herself as an autodidact, before adding that she taught that word to herself. She even describes herself as a curator, masking her lack of a specific skill set. Her goal at the moment is to take a small space and convert it to a hybrid restaurant/coffee shop/cultural center called “Mom’s.” When her current investor, a long-distance Greek boyfriend, drops out at the last minute, Brooke decides that she’ll get the money from her ex-boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) and his wife/her ex-best friend, Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), who Brooke claims stole Dylan and a lucrative shirt idea from her. Brooke believes that she is owed, but as the film makes clear, Brooke is not the most reliable storyteller.
Tracy decides to help Brooke out on her quest to get money from Dylan and Mamie Claire by getting Tony (with Nicolette reluctantly joining) to drive them out of New York to find Dylan and Mamie Claire. Tracy’s motivations, though, lie somewhere other than helping out her sister-to-be. Tracy submits a second story to the literary society called “Mistress America,” which follows a character that’s clearly modeled on Brooke. It’s a ruthless story that, from the snippets read aloud throughout the film, suggests that Tracy does have some talent as a writer, even if her work seems likely to end whatever relationship she has with Brooke if Brooke ever read it.
Mistress America is a witty movie with plenty of quotable lines, and up until a particular point, it’s a breezy film with enough bite to surprise audiences. It does begin to drag once everyone converges on Dylan and Mamie Claire’s gorgeously modern home, largely because the sequence takes up an unusually large of this film’s abbreviated runtime. The fault lies with the script, which begins to probe its characters more deeply while also ramping up the comedy, but to the film’s credit, Baumbach directs it well, and the cast fares well. The key to the film’s success, though, lies with Gerwig and Kirke’s performances. Both actresses inject an earnest quality to their characters that other actresses might not pull from the script, and those performances in turn underscore the film’s ultimate story: how these two women learn to see the world from a less self-centered place.