Mistress America

Self-absorbed relationships in the big city

Mistress America is another quirky, witty, honest, and thought-provoking independent comedy drama from writer/director Noah Baumbach. His previous films include Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, and While We’re Young, all of which contain a lot of social commentary and all of which I enjoyed very much.

Since I also have trouble enjoying films with unsympathetic characters, my appreciation for Baumbach’s films must be grounded in the strong element of hope that I find in his films.

Baumbach grew up in New York City and had a difficult childhood, which is reflected in the dark edge that is present in all of his films. All of Baumbach’s characters are flawed and most are also unsympathetic, something that prevents many people from enjoying Baumbach’s films. Since I also have trouble enjoying films with unsympathetic characters, my appreciation for Baumbach’s films must be grounded in the strong element of hope that I find in his films (that others seem to miss).

This is also true of Mistress America, which was co-written by Greta Gerwig, who stars in the film alongside relative newcomer Lola Kirke. Kirke plays Tracy, who has just started college in New York City. Tracy finds life in the big city overwhelming, especially when it comes to relationships. Despite being smart and attractive, she finds it very difficult to make friends in college. Finally, her loneliness becomes acute enough that she calls up Brooke (Gerwig), the daughter of the man her mother is about to marry.

For Tracy, Brooke is a breath of fresh air. Tracy marvels at the way Brooke, in spite of her many flaws, has turned New York City into her playground, jumping from one activity and project to the next in a nonstop flurry of movement. Brooke’s latest scheme is a restaurant she wants to open that offers an environment that feels like home and is called Mom’s (a clear commentary on life in the big city). As Tracy, an aspiring writer, hears the self-absorbed Brooke talk about her failed relationships (“I hate those kind of people but I’m in love with him”) and doomed projects, she is inspired to write Brooke’s story, which she titles Mistress America.

The many scenes of sharp witty dialogue between Tracy and Brooke are the highlights of Mistress America, with Kirke and Gerwig demonstrating tremendous skill and chemistry as they play off each other (and frequently talk past each other). The supporting actors (all unknowns) are likewise excellent.

The score of Mistress America is perfect for the film (perhaps the best I’ve heard this year) and the cinematography is solid. This is a well-made film, but, like his characters, Baumbach’s films are always flawed in some way. In this case, it’s a long bizarre scene in a suburban mansion that, while often hilarious, feels remarkably contrived and dishonest in an otherwise honest film.

Many viewers and critics will no doubt also point to the way the flawed, self-absorbed characters display such a lack of self-awareness, thus negating any positive attributes which they are meant to portray. While I might wish the characters were more sympathetic, I have no doubt that this lack of self-awareness lies at the heart of what Baumbach and Gerwig were trying to demonstrate in Mistress America: In big-city America, where people are surrounded by millions of others, they often remain desperately lonely; even in their relationships, people are alone, failing to consider the inner lives of others and the way their words and actions impact those lives. Lots to think about here.

An interesting coincidence is the scene in which Brooke is confronted by a woman she bullied in high school. Just as in the film The Gift, which I saw two weeks ago, Brooke wonders how anyone can think that people should be held responsible for the stupid things they did when they were teenagers. This seems to be an issue that needs more discussion.

As I mentioned, there is much to discuss in Mistress America, which is one of the things I like about Baumbach’s films. In this, they bear a strong resemblance to Woody Allen’s New York City films, which is hardly a bad thing. While sometimes too clever, the honest intelligence in these films lifts them well above the average comedy dramas being made these days.


Mistress America is undeservedly (in my opinion) rated R for sexual references.