It takes a lot of effort to make something as effortless as Mistress America. A movie like this, a movie that appears as a confection, a light and airy series of jokes, dies when you can see the work that went into it. If we got in too close we’d see the sweat and the strain hiding just behind the smiles, and it would ruin the illusion.
I mention that because it’s so easy to write off a movie as light and airy as Mistress America. It seems, to the uninitiated, like a lark, a throwaway, a bit of a larf. But the movie is meticulously constructed and crafted with care, and it features an extended screwball sequence that is quietly masterful and blindingly funny.
Lola Kirke is Tracy, a freshman at Columbia who knows no one in the big city - except for Brooke (Greta Gerwig), an older girl about to become her sister by marriage. Tracy, a budding writer, is first drawn to Brooke’s insane multitasking energy but soon begins to see a sadness poking through it all and uses her as the basis for a story that she intends to use to gain access to the prestigious literary society. Friendships are tested, the role of real life in art is debated and New York City is celebrated in a way that would make Woody Allen proud.
Noah Baumbach co-wrote the film with Gerwig, and it’s easy to see her influence. As in the masterful Frances Ha, Mistress America sees some of Baumbach’s New York City cynicism tempered. There’s less acid here than in films like Margot at the Wedding or Greenberg or even his last, the Gerwig-less While We’re Young; instead there’s a sense of hopefulness for these characters, especially the profoundly scattered and unmoored Brooke.
While We’re Young was a scathing indictment of Millennials, and Mistress America feels almost like an apology. Both films observe that over-observed generation, but from different angles - in While We’re Young it was the Gen Xers looking on with horror as the young ate them, while Mistress America’s Tracy is coming from the cusp of the next, as yet unnnamed generation. She sees in Brooke something lovely and amusing but she’s also a cautionary figure. In the end, though, there is tremendous warmth for Brooke, the Jill of All Trades and master of none.
Much of that comes from the performance of Gerwig herself. She’s a whirlwind of wide-eyed (unearned) confidence, a woman with a hundred projects going at any time and with a very self-centered view of her own history. She is the one who has been wronged by every person she has ever met, sticking to her story even when confronted by a woman who was bullied by her as a girl. In the middle of the film Brooke approaches levels of narcissism and delusion that make her hateable, and if it wasn’t for Gerwig’s natural, endless charm we would fall out of the movie.
But Mistress America isn’t about hating Brooke, it’s about coming to understand her. For Tracy that process happens first through art - making her into a thinly fictionalized character who is presented in a deeply unflattering light - and then through actual emotional confrontation. It’s easy to draw a line between this film and The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach’s most autobiographical film. Does he now feel he was perhaps unfair to some of the people in it?
If Gerwig is a whirlwind, Lola Kirke is the steady bedrock of the film. With a raspy voice and deeply intelligent eyes Kirke owns this film through and through. She’s an actual force, and Tracy is the kind of character that you fall immediately and deeply in love with. There’s certainly no question that The Squid and the Whale’s Walt would be head over heels for her - she’s funny and she’s incredibly bright and quick. Tracy is written like a real writer - an observer, a curious-minded explorer whose first instinct is to always say yes and go along the adventure, to listen to the story, to find out what makes other people tick. Kirke is phenomenal in the role, going toe to toe with the more enthused, broader Gerwig at every moment.
Mistress America has the sort of robust energy that leaves you buzzing; it’s a movie filled with quick and witty verbal exchanges and rapid-fire jokes that are based in character. It has the pulse of New York City, even during its brief sojourn in Connecticut, and has the vitality of youth. Most of all, Mistress America is a very funny movie that manages to be both honest and kind; it doesn’t pretend that Brooke is perfect or that she ends the movie totally redeemed, but it loves her anyway. It loves her for who she is, good and bad, and it is willing to embrace her for all that she is. I liked While We’re Young, but there was a grumpiness to it that was distancing; Mistress America is a movie full of warmth that makes you feel close to humanity. And it gets there honestly - it’s just dark enough that the positivity is well-earned.