There must be something in the New York water these days. With almost every passing month, we get another Manhattan (or at least outer borough) set coming of age story about young women in the big city.
But the beauty of Mistress America, a new film from the Frances Ha team of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, is that this particular age is coming in at around 30. And in fact, it’s not about growing up at all but is instead maintaining the youthful exuberance of both the town and the written word it inspires. More Howard Hawks than Lena Dunham, Mistress America is a screwball comedy for the Instagram era. An effervescent one, too.
To enjoy Mistress America, you have to understand its central enigma. As crafted by director Baumbach and star Gerwig’s co-written screenplay, Brooke is immediately momentous: she’s that type of New York supernova who, despite living in the city for eight years, still thinks the electric glitz of Times Square is the place to be (she even owns/squats in an apartment there); without a job or career to speak of, she still knows everyone at every party, and is perpetually on the precipice of opening that restaurant she’s always talking about; ultimately, she’s like a gravitational vortex, beckoning every soul around her, including the newly collected half-sister Tracy (Lola Kirke), into her orbit.
With their parents intending to marry after a dating site courtship, Brooke has never actually met dear “baby Tracy” when she invites the younger woman out for a night on the town. But since Tracy, at only 18-years-old, has just enrolled into college in the city with hardly any friends, she quickly becomes Brooke’s most devoted follower.
But lest this story trace too many familiar beats, Mistress America cleverly inverts its mentor and protégé relationship, casting Brooke as the true jejune admirer of her new sister’s youth by making introductions like, “She’s not that young. Ten to 12 years younger. We’re contemporaries.” And Tracy is the one who senses there is something to pass on in their relationship—like Brooke’s life serving as inspiration for her next short story.
It’s an oddly symbiotic relationship of genuine affection and self-aggrandizement that neither party seems fully aware of, causing the film to be all the smarter.
Initially focused on the repartee of its two leads, Mistress America slowly but steadily grows into a full-fledged ensemble as Brooke beguiles more personalities, expanding its ambitions just as deceptively as an off-kilter Mortimer Brewster and his nice aunts at the beginning of Arsenic and Old Lace. While definitely crafted from the same mold as modern indie comedies with moments of dramatic pathos, especially given Brooke’s fixation on naming her eternally-within-reach restaurant “Mom’s,” the earnest elements are secondary to comedic banter that is as fizzy as champagne, or whatever trendy cocktail is now being served in Williamsburg.
At first glance, Brooke might seem delusional, but it’s only because everyone around her is hiding behind even more pretensions, such as her 30-something best friend/arch-nemesis (everyone has those, right?) that stole her fiancé and moved out into the fortified mansions of Connecticut’s suburbs. When surrounded by old flames who longingly reminisce, “I had an apartment on the Lower East Side; my life was the lives they make TV shows about,” it becomes evident the only thing slightly loony about Brooke is that she’s aware of how nuts everyone else can be.
And it is that kind of crazy that elevates Mistress America. Stepping away from the sincerity of their previous collaboration’s back half, Baumbach and Gerwig establish an eclectic cast of players that drive the third act into welcomed absurdity. While the majority of the movie sees Baumbach film New York during a particularly cold autumn with as much affection as he and Gerwig have for their two central characters, played with a perfect balance by Gerwig and Kirke, it is when the characters go on a road trip with Tracy’s few college friends to Greenwich, Connecticut that the movie indulges its wackiest impulses. And we’re the better for it. By the time that Brooke and her posse of teenagers reach the home of the dreaded Mimi Claire (Heather Lind) and her husband Dylan (Michael Chernus), it boils over into a madcap stage play, performed by a developmentally arrested troupe of Yuppies and their decade-younger peers.
Together, they passionately devour their sleekly modern purlieu, as if there is a cheap seat to be played to among their audience of insecurities and nearby, judging house cats. Trading barbs and wisdom with equal acidity (such as Brooke advising Tracy’s friends that “there’s no cheating when you’re 18, you should be touching each other all the time”), Mistress America reveals its true gonzo desires.
After Frances Ha, Gerwig established herself as one of the wittiest young comedians of her generation, but by reteaming with her director and co-writer from that picture, she has proven that she can take a sensibility from almost any other era too and add a nice chic dose of Millennial sentiment to it. Simultaneously of this moment and of a comedic form from times gone by, Mistress America is persuasively hilarious.