Mistress America

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are back with their latest coming-of-age caper.
Sarah Ward
Published on November 02, 2015


If the individual movies a director makes can be seen as chapters from an ongoing book, then consider Noah Baumbach the author of a sharp, sweeping coming-of-age chronicle. Whether dissecting mature malaise in Greenberg, the attempts of a twenty-something to find her place in life in Frances Ha or the clash of the two in While We're Young, he remains fascinated with the process of growing up at any stage.

In Mistress America, Baumbach offers another instalment on his beloved topic, all while re-teaming with Greta Gerwig. Almost by design, their previous collaboration — both co-writing, him directing and her starring in Frances Ha, as remains the case here — looms large over their latest effort. Consider Frances Ha the fate that could've befallen Mistress America's teenager Tracy (Lola Kirke) after college if she hadn't crossed paths with her stepsister-to-be Brooke (Gerwig), or the past that might've delivered 30-year-old Brooke to her current predicament.

The two are brought together by their parents' impending marriage, with Tracy seeing Brooke as the big sis — and guide to life, both in New York and in general — she's never had. They're opposites: Tracy is quiet, lonely and wants to be a writer; Brooke is confident, constantly talks about herself and has an endless array of future plans. As they spend more time together, the seeming differences between the two become less pronounced. That fact isn't lost on Tracy, who starts to imagine Brooke as 'Meadow', the deeply flawed character in her new short story.

While finding commonality in Baumbach's films has become unavoidable, that doesn't make his work any less enjoyable or astute. There's a level of comfort to Mistress America's return to the filmmaker's well-traversed terrain, as well as his trademark intelligence and energy. Here, as in the rest of his efforts, he's fleshing out recognisable ideas and anxieties, but done so with slightly different parts. And while the overall message is starting to sound a little repetitive even as it remains accurate, the individual elements still have plenty of charms.

The feature is at its best in its wonderful midsection, where it plunges into a superbly executed farce. When a series of circumstances sends the not-quite-siblings plus some of Tracy's friends (Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas Jones) on a road trip to Connecticut to visit Brooke's former boyfriend (Heather Lind) and BFF (Michael Chernus), Baumbach takes his favourite themes into shrewd, smart and incisively funny screwball territory.

In some of the best sequences the director has committed to the screen, infectious laughter ensues, as does insight and urgency that the rest of the film can't quite match. Of course, that plays into Baumbach's usual oeuvre: what is a coming-of-age story, and his entire output, if not an examination of how to keep going after pivotal moments and turning points?


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