If While We’re Young is Noah Baumbach’s ‘A’ film of 2015, then Mistress America has the feel of a side project dashed off with maximum verve and energy. Reuniting the director with his creative and romantic partner Greta Gerwig, it is a return to the portrait of a young-woman-in-crisis of 2012’s Frances Ha. But if that picture channelled the French New Wave, Mistress America borrows the energy of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges to examine the lives of narcissistic New Yorkers. Few filmmakers are as good on characters trying to find their place in the world and, in Baumbach’s hands, the result is smart, funny and breathless.
At its heart, Mistress America is the study of a female friendship between freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) and live wire Brooke (Greta Gerwig, who co-writes), a relationship forged by their status as prospective stepsisters. Tracy is an overwhelmed freshman at Columbia, clinging to the first guy she meets and intent on joining the secret literary soc. If dizzying choice cripples Tracy, Brooke thrives on it, an interior designer/spin-cycle instructor/social-media maven with an idea for a TV superhero, Mistress America. It’s a meeting of opposite minds, but Gerwig and Kirke make you believe it every step of the way.
What plot there is centres on Brooke’s efforts to launch a restaurant-community centre-store called Mom’s and Tracy’s clandestine use of Brooke as a character in a short story, but for the first half at least we just hang out with the two girls as Tracy comes under the thrall of Brooke. It’s a series of conversations full of quotable wit, alive to the delusions of its two heroines and perfectly attuned to the self-absorption of twentysomethings.
At the heart of the movie is a long sequence set in the Connecticut suburbs where Brooke, Tracy, Tracy’s friend Paul (Matthew Shear) and his hilariously over-jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones) descend on Brooke’s “nemesis” to get the money she feels she is owed. It’s a brilliantly modulated exercise in intelligent farce, with Baumbach conducting entrances, exits, bizarre characters (a pregnant houseguest, a nosey neighbour) and outlandish situations with a perfect touch, letting the laughs escalate without tippling over into bathos.
Kirke, the trailer trash who diddles Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, registers in a quiet, intense way that is no mean feat in the face of Gerwig’s tour de force. She blows through scenes like a hipster tornado yet reveals vulnerabilities and generosity that continually spins how you feel about her. Gerwig has funny bones and so much more. The 2016 Oscar race for Best Actress starts here.