Directed by Noah Baumbach
September is a month of transition: The school year picks up again, summer changes into fall, and box-office blockbusters of the past few months are replaced with an often bland assortment of weak comedies and pre-Halloween horror movies. Occasionally, a film will pop up that is a true gem, hidden in a sea of so-so entertainment. “Mistress America” is one such film, full of originality, grit and an almost electric energy.
Directed by Noah Baumbach, “Mistress America” focuses on college freshman and writer Tracy (Lola Kirke), whose life is turned upside down when she meets her wildly imaginative stepsister-to-be, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Tracy is struggling to find her place in her new life as a student in New York City and seeks validation as a writer, and Brooke is preparing to open a restaurant in Brooklyn. As the two become closer through the promise of sisterhood, they cope with the joys and dangers of allowing a new person into one’s life.
“Mistress America” stands out because of the layered performances from both leads — complex female characters who are smart, funny and flawed. The raw, messy and thrilling dynamic between Tracy and Brooke almost resembles that between Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby from the classic novel and movie “The Great Gatsby.” Kirke and Gerwig are stellar scene partners and a true team: Each one’s performance helps establish the other’s character as much as their own. They are both lost in their own ways: Tracy, as she tries to adjust to a new world on her own, and Brooke, as she evaluates her patched-together lifestyle. Where other films would play up this situation to a farcical degree or turn it into a melodramatic Hallmark card, “Mistress America” manages to find a more truthful balance of happiness and heartbreak.
The supporting cast isn’t heavily featured, but it adds color to the tiny world of intellectuals inhabited by Brooke and Tracy. Tony (Matthew Shear), Tracy’s love interest, holds his own well enough, but his character pales in comparison to his girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Cephas Jones is an absolute riot as Nicolette, who is conservative, vengeful and a scene-stealer toward the end of the film. Dylan (Michael Chernus) and Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) are ex-friends of Brooke whom she seeks out in order to find investors for her restaurant, and their contrasting reactions to Brooke’s arrival are a great comical moment in the film. Tracy’s mother (Kathryn Erbe) rounds out the cast, serving as the key link between Brooke and Tracy. Her sweet scenes with her daughter offer the most heart in the entire film.
The screenplay, co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig, is witty, satirical and just dark enough to make “Mistress America” truly special. Gerwig’s deep level of connection to the story is evident in her performance, and her comic timing is subtle but powerful. The plot itself is inventive, original, entertaining and finds a way to blend emotions felt universally with humor and depth that is wholly refreshing. The script is full of banter and sharp one-liners that sound as though they were pulled straight from a novel.
The soundtrack is young and deliberate, melting perfectly into the scenes and adding extra personality to the film. The film’s lighting is crisp, which gives a bright, fresh look to an otherwise standard New York City setting. The overall aesthetic is clean but not overbearing, letting the characters and dialogue shine as they should.
“Mistress America” is not your typical movie about college or sisterhood — while both things are key to the story, the film’s sophisticated delivery allows it to be much more than any labels. Its portrait of millennial life — an appropriately vague term, considering the diversity of personalities present in the story — is incisive without being condescending. It is atypical but still accessible, humorous but still serious and absolutely a must-see.