Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Mistress America is Noah Baumbach’s polarizing new feature about a college student discovering herself alongside her soon-to-be stepsister. The most striking element of the film is how similar it is both thematically and narratively to Baumbach’s 2013 story, Frances Ha, which I loved. There, he navigated a world where a woman in her late twenties was unsure of her future in the world and could not seem to find the career she so desired. It was an aptly fitting story for a post-recession America, with a self-entitled woman finding herself at odds with a world that severely undervalued her talents as a post-graduate student. Baumbach’s latest endeavor is co-written with both films’ star, Greta Gerwig, who adds a delightfully acute female touch to the film. Yet it’s a decidedly empty endeavor that only manages one truly great scene of slapstick; outside of that, it’s simply a one-dimensional entry that makes most of its female characters grating without a semblance of its worldview. Baumbach’s a talented director, undoubtedly, but it feels as if his directorial spark has begun to falter.
The film focuses on Tracy (Lola Kirke), an 18-year old college student who has thrown herself into courses that she wasn’t necessarily prepared for. She’s an educated girl but feels out-of-place in her small discussion classes, often falling asleep and finding that she could care less about what others have to say. She’s a talented writer and befriends Tony (Matthew Shear), another writer who seems open to both finding a friend and a romantic interest very quickly into college. They exchange stories and, despite seeming invested in one another, ultimately go their separate ways as Tony starts a relationship with the compulsively suspecting Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). She’s had many distrustful relationships in the past and believes that Tony probably still has feelings for Tracy; she’d be mostly right. Alas, Tracy finds out that her mother, Sheri (Kathryn Erbe), is about to marry a man and she’ll gain a new stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), so she reaches out to her eclectic soon-to-be-relative and begins to find a new sense of purpose underneath Brooke’s wing. What begins as learning from her stepsister’s wisdom evolves into her realizing the delusion of intelligence that Brooke carries, and whether that is ultimately a bad thing considering the optimism that Brooke carries in every fiber of her being.
I’ve seen Mistress America twice, and discussed it once with an audience. There’s still divisiveness within the viewing audience as to how likable these characters are, particularly as Tracy’s story revolves around her finding her authorial voice behind Brooke’s ideas about the world. She tears apart Brooke’s life, steals her story, and does what many others have done to Brooke over the course of her life. Even though Brooke is far from the perfect human being, and spells that out too clearly in the film’s overly wordy dialogue, she comes across as sympathetic in comparison to Tracy’s overly manipulative, compulsively immature self. Lola Kirke is a star in the making though, with her child-like lisp adding perfectly to her character and her counter-action to Brooke’s confident self. Gerwig is normally great and continues that trend here, even if her and Baumbach’s writing is a bit subpar. Both of them do not seem to have a coherent idea surrounding the characters and their overarching message within the film, as both viewings left me wondering what the audience is to make of either character’s trajectories. I simply think the stories are unfulfilling despite their bouts of surprising humor.
Those moments come often, though, most notably in a half-hour segment in the climax of the film that culminates in multiple scenes. With at least seven or eight characters getting speaking roles in these moments all set in the household of Brooke’s ex-lover Dylan (Michael Chernus), the film begins to finds its tonal voice as the slapstick nature of the scene mixes well with the Woody Allen-esque dialogue. Yet the fundamental problem lies in how these characters come across as nagging and far too loud; they speak their emotions without any sense of subtlety and leave the audience with the growing sense that they think they understand these people. But they truly don’t. And that’s the problem. The performances are committed and I commend the effort given to making female characters exist outside of the confines of patriarchal society, but the film doesn’t find many moments of inspired comedy. A bad exchange involving the term “retarded” and the aftermath of said scene in an uncomfortable bar exchange underlying the characters’ unlikability. I simply could not connect with the two leads in Mistress America, despite Baumbach’s admittedly funny direction and his lead Greta Gerwig’s co-writing talents.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)