A spiritual sequel to Frances Ha, Mistress America reunites director and writer Noah Baumbach with writer and star Greta Gerwig for a wacky tale of coming of age against descending farce. Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a college freshman in New York; lonely and dissatisfied, she reaches out to her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Brooke is, for want of a better phrase, 30 and flirty and thriving, and Tracy is seduced by her wit and charm, the patched together bourgeois New York lifestyle she’s thrown together for herself. Some of this enchantment falls away though, when Tracy harvests her new found life with Brooke for material for a short story she can enter to the esteemed lit society; a perceptive, acute Tracy can see the gaping holes in Brooke’s best laid plans.
The first act of Mistress America operates as an exploration of the new relationship between these two women. They speak in classic indie, mumblecore witticisms that those not a fan of such a style will hate. They are textbook Noah Baumbach white, middle class New Yorkers, with dreams of opening a quaint charming hipster restaurant called ‘Moms’. So far, so predictable, right? However the second act is much more interesting. Brooke and Tracy (hitching a ride with Tracy’s college crush and jealous girlfriend) go to ask Brooke’s nemesis Mamie-Claire, who stole her fiancé, t-shirt company idea, and cats (and thus totally owes her), for investment in the restaurant.
From this point on, the film transforms into a delightful screwball comedy. Mistress America is never quiet, a large cast pile into Mamie-Claire’s suburban mansion and the camera flits between them as they shout across rooms. Each one is pretentious, deluded, self-interested, narcissistic, perhaps borderline sociopathic. We’re never asked to like any of these characters – we observe them fall into chaos and dig themselves into holes. It’s incredibly comically effective as the jokes come at such a fast, blink and you’ll miss them pace. The humour is pointed – it is all about that hip, social media generation Baumbach seems especially interested in. We’re not laughing at them and we’re not laughing with them, it’s a sort of ‘ I guess this is the norm now, this is how it is’ kind of humour.
Just like Frances Ha, Mistress America is about women, and it pains me that this can still be referred to as refreshing. It is though, like most narratives about women. One of the strongest parts of the film is when it narrows in on ‘Mistress America’, the short story Tracy writes. Mistress America the film becomes this meta-narrative as Mamie-Claire critiques Tracy’s representation of women, asking her all sorts of irrelevant questions such as what her story says about a ‘woman’s right to choose’. It’s a brilliant, deeply loaded moment that says so much about the way we view female characters and female writers in this age of social justice. Ironically, not all art about women, or by women, has anything particularly revolutionary to say about women – and that’s fine.
By Ashley Woodvine
Ashley is a 17 year old from Norwich. She loves Belle and Sebastian, Taylor Swift, dancing badly and porridge, mostly. Her favourite films include Frances Ha, The Royal Tenenbaums and Beasts of the Southern Wild. She has a very deep affinity with that bit in Inside Llewyn Davis where he stares at toilet wall graffiti that says ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?’. Tends to tweet about her life in an over-dramatic way @heartswellss.
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