I have a soft spot for films set in New York City, and what a surprise Mistress America turned out to be. Noah Baumbach’s second film this year, Mistress America makes great use of its protagonists in a film about female friendship and coming of age in an urban jungle.
When college freshman Tracy first reaches out to Brooke, she does so out of loneliness and sense of duty. Their parents are getting married, but she isn’t ready for what Brooke has in store for her. Tracy, played by wide-eyed newcomer Lola Kirke, is that awkward freshman that we all were. Not quite yet an adult, but full of ambition and desire. This ambition is mirrored in Tracy’s interactions with Brooke, an almost thirty-something who has dreams of opening a restaurant-slash-hair salon-slash-grocery store. Brooke is full of ideas, and you can literally see the spark behind Gerwig’s eyes. She fiercely steps into Brooke’s shoes, matching the role she took on in Frances Ha. Her confidence and ambition is contagious, and Tracy catches this. Baumbach has examined young ambition and vigor many times before, but not quite like this.
Mistress America is overflowing with quotable one-liners, mostly from Brooke herself. She’s straight out of the show Girls yet with more independence and likability. We all know someone like Brooke, a young someone who laments about the need to document our lives on social media yet would take more than five minutes to send out a crafty tweet. Someone who is full of ideas but not quite sure how to get there, instead harboring hatred at her rival for stealing her fiancé and her t-shirt line. Brooke spews out these truths like nobody’s business, and you wonder if Brooke is actually the prophet she claims to be or if it comes to her on the fly. The term “free spirit” is used a lot these days, often incorrectly, but Brooke Cardinas definitely fits the bill.
In Lola, we get the creativity of a young writer hoping to make it big. In this case, ‘make it’ means earning a spot in her school’s prestigious writer’s club. Her chemistry with Brooke is inspirational one moment, and self-reflective in another. It helps that Gerwig and Kirke have a natural rapport. The two feel like old friends by the end of the movie, despite only having a few months pass.
Mistress America is screwball at its finest, with a host of supporting characters adding to the zaniness of the whole affair. A lengthly sequence that plays out at Brooke’s rival’s suburban Connecticut home is a huge highlight in the film that puts such focus on the busy streets of NYC. It’s almost Shakespearian the way that the comedic beats keep coming one after another, barely giving you time to process before another character enters the room delivering the next witty zinger. Mistress America is Baumbach at his best. Two incredible young actresses play two different yet similar characters with some of the best writing I’ve seen this year.