Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s insights into human behavior seem to grow more astute with every film he makes. Somehow he finds charms in the flaws of people and transmits a keen sense of empathy to the audience. Baumbach and his screen-writing partner Greta Gerwig have crafted us a peculiar but endearing young woman with questionable social skills in Mistress America’s 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke). Speaking to her mom via phone not long after she has started class at Barnard, Tracy gripes about her difficulty making friends. “It’s like being at a party where you don’t know anyone all the time.”
“That sounds uncomfortable,” responds her mom. There’s something really funny in this exchange but also canny. The parent states something obvious, informed by experience. It leaves her daughter even more isolated and warmer to the audience. We also don’t understand Tracy’s troubles in making friends, which, as the movie progresses, will become more clear. But even in her social awkwardness she will continue to become more endearing, all the way up to a key confrontation that will have some questioning whether Tracy may be a sociopath.
Her mother suggests she call up the daughter of the man her mother is about to marry, Brooke (Gerwig), an older young lady (she’s 30) who may soon become her step-sister. One day, after eating an entire pie by herself at a diner, while Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” is spilling from a tinny speaker, Brooke stares down at the cracked screen of her iPhone 3GS. She dials Brooke and leaves a message. Brooke calls back seconds later and so begins a strange, screwy adventure about chasing dreams at oscillating levels of maturity.
Baumbach is at the top of his game working with Gerwig. A lightness pervades this film, similar to their fitst collaboration, Frances Ha (Film Review: ‘Frances Ha’ reveals Noah Baumbach’s luminous lighter touch). So the script is smart, but it wouldn’t be a complete package without supporting cinematic elements. New collaborators include the duo Dean & Britta of Luna fame, who have produced a bubbly, new wave soundtrack for the movie. But he’s also working with Sam Levy again who lenses a gorgeous New York City. However, nothing is about the surface in a Baumbach film. There’s a reason it takes Brooke an uncomfortable amount of time to walk down the Times Square steps with arms outstretched to greet Tracy waiting below. It’s a quirky set-piece that speaks to shaking off illusions of romance that Baumbach traffics in so well.
Ultimately, it is the screenplay that makes this movie, and I sense awards in its future (if there be justice). As delightful as these women sometimes appear, the script is quick to cancel out any charms, and this play never gets tiresome. Brooke is a great over-sharer and the embodiment of cognitive dissonance. She pauses in the street to write a Tweet about some inanity but gripes when someone snaps a picture of her being kissed by a friend. “Must we document ourselves all the time? Must WE?” she says in a declaration to the universe but to no one really.
The dynamic between these two would-be sisters starts to knot when Brooke shares with Tracy her idea to start a restaurant in New York City called “Mom’s.” Brooke doesn’t know anything about cooking, but she has an array of mismatched plates in boxes at her studio apartment that exude the sort of ambiance she dreams of creating. It’s this sense of superficiality that fuels an insubstantial drive that begins to intrigue and delight Tracy. Tracy, meanwhile, is chasing her own dream, hoping to be accepted by a supercilious writer’s club at college who flaunt leather satchels and sit in a room discussing big ideas while sipping wine. It turns out Brooke, who refers to herself as “Mistress America,” could prove to be the real-life inspiration she needs for a short story that would impress the snobs.
“I think you can do anything” Tracy says, enabling Brooke’s ego as she meets with potential investors. There’s a sinister sincerity to the statement. However, the film only ever presents these characters as endearing. Tracy never appears ironically shifty. You have a sense she knows not what she is doing, as she co-opts her new-found friendship with little regard for Brooke’s feelings. Whether she can learn from this is not spelled out, but the bond between these two depends on something much more profound.
Mistress America runs 84 minutes and is rated R (adult talk and humor). It opens in our South Florida area Sept. 4 at the following indie theaters: O Cinema Wynwood and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For screening dates hear you, check out a list of theaters hosting the film across the U.S. by clicking this link. O Cinema invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.