If you happened to find Noah Baumbach’s last film While We’re Young a bit underwhelming, it’s probably because it had a serious lack of Greta Gerwig. Enter: Mistress America. Baumbach’s romantic partner has really ushered in a new sense of energy in his films, as exampled in 2013’s Frances Ha, which she both starred in and co-wrote. Playing the naïve title character, Gerwig gave film-goers an exuberant and charming protagonist who stood in direct contrast to the more prickly characters that Baumbach typically writes. For that reason, it should come as no surprise that Mistress America is another Gerwig collaboration that the two began working on shortly after finishing Frances Ha.
The film finds its protagonist in 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke), an intelligent young woman currently in her first semester at Bard College. She dreams of becoming a writer but is struggling to find her place amongst her peers, and she takes it upon herself to contact Brooke, a 30-year-old woman who is about to become her new step-sister. Brooke makes an immediate impression on Tracy as a character she could write in a short story, and this is only amplified when she discovers Brooke’s financial problems. Brooke hopes to open a restaurant within the year and hopes to ask for a loan from her ex-fiancé (Michael Chernus). The two women then travel to his house in Connecticut to confront him.
For those born in Generation Y, Mistress America will certainly feel familiar in the way it examines generation gaps. As people born between 1980 and 1990 enter their 30s, it’s difficult for them not to look at younger generations and wonder if they’re already more adaptable to the work force than themselves. It’s clear almost immediately that Tracey is a far more mature woman than Brooke, despite them being over a decade apart in age. Tracy is more literate and realistic, while Brooke is more abstract in demeanor. Brooke is aware of her behavior, as we find her making comments about their age difference (“We’re contemporaries!” “If they’re kids, then we’re kids too.”).
Brooke is nothing, if not an anachronism. Her sensibility, her style of dress, even the way she talks, doesn’t seem to jive with contemporary New York. It’s not a stretch to feel that Brooke sees herself as a yuppie living in Manhattan circa 1985, rather than a loan-reliant hipster living in an illegally rented apartment. Baumbach has been seen as being a “contemporary New York” filmmaker, although his films have always displayed a yearning for a lost era, when rents were affordable and the spoils of white privilege weren’t so commonplace. In a way, Brooke is a satire of a no-longer-existent New York mentality, while Tracy may be a glimmer of hope for a newly gestating one.
This is why the inevitable conflict between Tracy and Brooke is so palpable. The film’s climax is a highly inspired scene that manages to be both hilarious and unspeakably brutal (Gerwig and Baumbach said they were inspired by the novels of Philip Roth in particular). In another call to the past, the film’s second act plays very much like a 1940s screwball comedy, with plenty of coincidence and rapid-fire zingers. While it may not be as done succinctly as this year’s great throwback film Wild Canaries, the humorous and light romantic touches go a long way to make the film endearing.
Once again, Noah Baumbach shows he’s an actor’s director here. The 25-year-old Lola Kirke (who you might remember as the grifter in Gone Girl) gives a very impressive performance that’s capably nuanced. As expected, Gerwig is the standout, and she, fortunately, doesn’t do a repeat of Frances Ha. Gerwig’s character is endearing, flaws and all, and her comic moments always yield big laughs; she is also able to transition into more serious trajectories seamlessly. It’ll be interesting to see if Gerwig will ever return to the darker roles that permeated the beginning of her career, but for now we can rest assured that she’s made herself into a bright “it” girl for NYC.