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Mistress America (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Mistress America

Mistress America


Starring Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung, Jasmine Cephas, Matthew Shear, Kathryn Erbe, Michael Chernus, Dean Wareham, Shelby Rebecca Wong and Adrea Teasdale.

Screenplay by Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig.

Directed by Noah Baumbach.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.  84 minutes.  Rated R.

Director Noah Baumbach is having a busy New York year.  This is the second Manhattan-based film featuring the co-stars of his way-underrated 2010 life-in-Los-Angeles film Greenberg which came out within a matter of weeks of each other this past summer.  I caught While We’re Young with Ben Stiller in its theatrical go-around, but I somehow missed Greta Gerwig’s flip side of the coin until its video release.

At the time of Greenberg, Gerwig was a little known mumblecore indie actress, and while the film itself was not a huge success, her spectacularly neurotic performance caught the eyes of Hollywood execs.  (This is as well as catching the eye of her director, Baumbach left his wife Jennifer Jason Leigh – who was also in Greenberg – and became involved with Gerwig.)

In Gerwig, Baumbach has found his perfect female heroine (on film, we will not comment any further on their personal relationship).  Beyond Greenberg, Baumbach is also known for smart, funny films like The Squid & the Whale and Margot at the Wedding and Gerwig fits in with his skewed worldview perfectly, even in a flawed movie like their other collaboration Frances Ha.

Gerwig has a sublime mixture of understated cool and neurotic zaniness – an unholy merge of Veronica Lake and Carole Lombard – and yet her style is weirdly inimitable.  In Mistress America, which Gerwig wrote with Baumbach, she has also found what may be her ideal character.

In an act of screenwriting generosity, Gerwig has made her character a supporting role – granted, a very significant supporting role – and gave the lead in their film to another young actress.

That actress is Lola Kirke, and she is more than up to the challenge.  Though her character of Tracy in some ways becomes the straight man to Gerwig’s Brooke in much of the film, she also brings a fascinating vulnerability and surprising depth to what could be a simple unpopular college girl role.

In Mistress America, Tracy has moved to New York to go to college to become a writer, but barely into her freshman year she is already feeling lost and like a bit of an outcast.  She’s having trouble making friends, not doing great in her classes and already considering giving up on her New York dream.  The one friend she has made is Tony (Matthew Shear), a nerdy guy who she is planning on stringing along as a potential fallback boyfriend, until she is shocked that he picks up a girlfriend without even coming on to her.

Tracy also feels a bit detached from the remarriage of her divorced mom back home (Kathryn Erbe).  However, her new father-in-law, who mom had met on the internet and Tracy has not yet met, has a daughter in New York as well.  That daughter is Brooke, who is about a decade older than Tracy, but has put together a cool New York existence, or so it seems from the outside.

Tracy resists her mom’s suggestions that she reach out to Brooke for a while, but one night when she is feeling particularly low and unpopular she decides to meet the woman who will become her sister-in-law.  Brooke takes Tracy for a whirlwind tour of Manhattan’s hip and fun areas, and soon Tracy is intrigued by the woman, a wild mix of gorgeous surety and neurotic self-doubt.  Brooke is living a crazed new-millennial hipster version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Tracy is seduced by her world, and also finds her an inspiration as a writer.

However, the more that Tracy finds confidence through her relationship with Brooke, the more she loses track of her basic humanity.  As she sees Brooke’s plans and schemes start to crumble, Tracy adds to her chaos by writing a not-very-complimentary story “based on” Brooke.

Mistress America has some astonishingly good comic set pieces – an extended sequence in which Brooke and Tracy visit an old frenemy of Brooke’s in search of money is a marvel of sustained screwball comedy – and it also is smart enough to give the characters real feelings and problems.

It may not be quite as popular as While We’re Young – which has a much flashier cast – but this film is by no means the lesser of Baumbach’s New York double feature.  That film was very good, but Mistress America can make a very good argument for being the top of this bill.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: December 15, 2015.

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