Mistress America (2015)

mistressamerica_2015_poster
Mistress America (2015)
  • Time: 88 min
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Director: Noah Baumbach
  • Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind

Storyline:

Tracy, a lonely college freshman in New York, is rescued from her solitude by her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke, an adventurous gal about town who entangles her in alluringly mad schemes. Mistress America is a comedy about dream-chasing, score-settling, makeshift families, and cat-stealing.

One review

  • Greta Gerwig makes a grand entrance as Brooke Cardinas in Mistress America. Descending from the red steps behind the TKTS booth in Times Square, Brooke sashays down with the exuberance of a Ziegfeld Girl but also, as viewers and Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) will soon realise, with the delusional desperation of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard’s unforgettable closing moments.

    It is apt that Brooke is initially seen in the middle of Times Square since he shares its craziness, intensity, and vibrancy. Gushing forth with torrential chatter, she is the sort of person who “makes you want to find life, not hide from it” and one can understand how 18-year-old Tracy would glom onto this ball of fire. Tracy is newly arrived to the big city, adjusting to her first semester at Barnard College, but struggling to find her place. Talking to her mother over the phone, Tracy laments, “It’s like being at a party where you don’t know anybody, all the time.” Her mother suggests reaching out to Brooke, her soon-to-be stepsister.

    Brooke is 30 and as happy to be admired by Tracy as Tracy is gladdened to be consumed by the whirlwind of Brooke’s presence. Within the first 24 hours of their time together, the Manhattan scenester takes the aspiring writer under her wing, bringing her to a trendy nightclub where Brooke is beckoned onstage by the band, surrounding Tracy with her hip and cool acquaintances whom she pish-poshes for taking pictures of her (“Must we document ourselves all the time?” she sighs), and regales the awestruck schoolgirl with her talent for “curating her employment” (amongst Brooke’s jobs: SoulCyle instructor, tutor, and freelance interior decorator), an idea for a television show (“…which I read is the new novel…”) about a government worker by day and super-heroine by night, and her plans to open up a restaurant named “Mom’s,” which would function not only as a bistro but a cozy boutique, neighbourhood hangout, and community center. Oh, and her boyfriend Stavros, currently in Greece “betting against the economy or something,” would be the restaurant’s main investor.

    Brooke and her life become material for Tracy’s latest short story, and it is in hearing the story’s excerpts that we come to realise several things about Tracy Fishko. One, that she is ambitious enough to cannibalise Brooke’s life for a short story she hopes will gain her inclusion into Barnard’s literary society. Two, that by doing this, Tracy proves to possess the ruthlessness necessary to become a writer. Three, that for all her idolatry of Brooke, Tracy sees Brooke’s frailties and failings all too clearly, though likening Brooke to “a rotting carcass” may be a step too far.

    Mistress America is a stellar showcase for both Gerwig, arguably her generation’s pre-eminent comedienne, and Kirke, who delivers an equally indomitable performance as the morally opaque Tracy. This is a film about the shifting sands of identity and the dangers of adhering and blinding oneself to the limits of one identity. Tracy is still trying on different characters to see what best fits; Brooke is still counting on her popular girl persona to solve all her problems. The movie hinges on the chemistry between Gerwig and Kirke, and both actresses navigate the minefield of Brooke and Tracy’s relationship with finesse and aplomb.

    Director Noah Baumbach, who-wrote the screenplay with Gerwig, mined similar thematic terrain in While We’re Young but where that film explored its themes within a more conventional comedic tone, Mistress America employs the often dizzying velocity of a screwball comedy to offer its insights. The dialogue comes a thousand miles a minute; Mistress America bears re-watching if only to listen to Gerwig’s breathless but perfectly timed readings of lines like her brutally blunt appraisal of Tracy: “Sometimes I don’t know if you’re a Zen master or a sociopath,” or the way she sets up a line like “I am the most sensitive person ” to lob over to co-star Heather Lind to finish: “…to your own feelings.”

    The third act finds Mistress America in full farcical bloom as Brooke, Tracy, Tracy’s once and potentially future love interest Tony (Michael Shear), and Tony’s possessive girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) arrive at the impressive Connecticut home of Mamie-Claire (Lind), Brooke’s ex-friend and nemesis who stole her man, her lucrative T-shirt idea, and even her two cats. Amidst all the meticulously staged chaos of exits and entrances, emotional collisions and zany dialogue, two moments of revelation. “I’m the same,” Tracy insists to Tony when he accuses her of always collecting material for her stories, “I’m just the same in another direction now.”

    Then there is Brooke, who careens about begging, blaming and bellowing before arriving at a moment where the artifice and the armour are abandoned and Brooke sees herself for who she is and her situation as it truly stands. The moment is breathtaking and Gerwig is pure heartbreak.

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