Technology may have changed many aspects of our lives, but as the opening scenes of Mistress America show, the fish-out-of-water feeling young adults get when they start university/college is not one of them. Being new and away from home is still hard, and Tracy (Lola Kirke) is having a tough time fitting in. She isn’t a social butterfly, and she apparently doesn’t make the grade to join her university’s coveted literary society. Feeling lonely, she makes contact with Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her 30ish-year-old, soon-to-be step sister who lives in New York City. The two form an unlikely friendship, and Brooke’s unconventional lifestyle becomes a source of inspiration (both personally and creatively) for Tracy.
Gerwig’s Brooke is like many people I have known, and I see some of myself in her. Brooke is full of great ideas, but lacks the smarts and or work ethic to make them happen. Unable to see one thing through, she flits from job-to-job, idea-to-idea, hoping that the next one will be her ticket to a better life. While she presents herself as energetic, passionate, and happy, the truth is she sometimes feels like she might have lost her chance. There’s only so far youth can take you once you’re over thirty, and it hurts to realise it.
Tracy is intoxicated by Brooke’s whirlwind, trendy lifestyle, but even she can see that Brooke’s life isn’t as flashy as she makes it out to be. At 18 she is slightly meek and awkward, but she’s also observant and very smart. She can see Brooke’s ideas aren’t likely to work, but she supports her anyway. Their relationship is interesting, part mentor-mentee, part theatre, with Brooke playing the enigmatic entrepreneur, and Tracy her biggest cheerleader.
Gerwig and Baumbach’s screenplay is energetic and smart, filled with belly aching laughs and painful truths (often at the same time). These truths are doled out in hilarious fashion, particularly in the final act, a road trip to visit an old friend of Brooke’s. It plays like a screwball comedy, with a good dash of Woody Allen thrown it. The absurd escalation of events, with a number of supporting characters (and two cats) thrown in, makes for a comical, but painfully public moment of realisation for both Tracy and Brooke. In many of ways it’s a coming-of-age experience for both, despite their age gap.
Lola Kirke delivers a nuanced performance as Tracy, and is certainly a young actor to watch out for. At times she is smart and sassy, while at others she is every bit as youthful and inexperienced as her character’s 18 years. She reminded me of Rashida Jones, but without the assuredness which Jones carries herself with. Gerwig is bubbly and fun, but the role isn’t much of a stretch for her. Thus far she has played characters within a very narrow range, and she has played them very well – this performance is no exception. However, I must admit I am far more interested in Gerwig as writer than as an actor – the writing is fresh and often speaks to me personally in ways that I am surprised by. I certainly look forward to more Gerwig-Baumbach efforts in the future.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Noah Baumbach
Writer(s): Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind
Runtime: 84 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: October 29, 2015