Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig team up for a third time in this funny, moving little film.
Mistress America is one of those rare films that enthrals you as you watch it, but when it’s finished you realise that nothing much actually happened. Or rather, it’s rare because despite its lack of tangible plot, you come out having watched it feeling inspired, reinvigorated even. You don’t so much watch the characters in Mistress America as you do spend time with them, find yourself empathising with some of them with a little thrill of joy, see yourself reflected in others with a pang of regret, and wish that you could even for a moment step into their shoes and tramp around in their lives.
The film follows Tracey Fishko (Lola Kirke), an 18 year-old starting college in New York as she struggles to find a place to fit. At her mother’s encouragement, Tracey meets Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her soon-to-be step-sister, and is instantly swept up into the whirlwind of adventures and ambitions that make up Brooke’s life. Others are soon pulled along by the inexorable tide of Brooke’s character, including Tracey’s friend (Matthew Shear), his girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones), Brooke’s ex-fiancé and her “arch-nemesis” (Michael Cherbus and Heather Lind), their neighbour, and their pregnant friend. All of these people, who by all rights shouldn’t (and don’t) know each other, end up in the ex-fiancé’s house together, interacting in hilarious ways, but not really knowing how they got there.
It is very obvious that it’s Brooke that holds the whole film together, dragging the other characters around with her by the scruff of the neck and really driving what little plot the film needs. She is a superbly realised character, and one that could only ever exist in fiction; a kind of modern day Holly Golightly (though not a prostitute, it seems important to point that out). With the right amount of quirk, wit, and self-confidence, she captures your attention from the moment she appears on screen, and at the same time has enough flaws and vulnerability to make you care about her as the film goes on. All credit for that goes to Gerwig, whose best performance to date holds Brooke skilfully back from being just another take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or from being quirky and “fun” to the point of annoyance.
As important and wonderful as Brooke is, however, she isn’t actually the film’s main character (or at least not the only one). The film is about Tracey, and her relationship with Brooke. Tracey watches Brooke from the side, like us – first with awe, and then, later, with pity. It is this shared spectatorship that opens Tracey up and lets the audience understand her and empathise with her in a way that they never could with Brooke (the whole point of Brooke’s character is that we, and Tracey, want to be her, but never could), and Lola Kirke does excellently with this crucial role. Despite her youth and relative inexperience (this is Kirke’s first major role, other than a small supporting role in Gone Girl), she delivers a nuanced character with ease, and stands eye-to-eye with Gerwig throughout the film.
As a whole, the film is the best kind of funny, often and consistently so. It is brilliantly made, with writer/director Noah Baumbach choosing to eschew anything as trivial as plot so as to focus on the construction of characters and the exploration of themes that, though not grand and rousing like race, or the meaning of life, are those thoughts and questions that gnaw away at most peoples’ minds, and raise their heads with a sickening lurch as you try to sleep. How to grow up and embrace the frightening enormity of adult life, how to find a place to feel at home, how to quell the aching hunger of success that dances just inches from your grasp (I’d say the American Dream, but we’re British, and the British Dream involves tea, queueing, and repressed emotions). Mistress America may not provide some warm fuzzy answer to your problems, but I challenge you to watch it and not come out feeling a bit better about whatever the future may hold.
Mistress America (2015), directed by Noah Baumbach, is distributed in the UK by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Certificate 15.