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USA 2015
Directed by
Noah Baumbach
84 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars

Mistress America

Synopsis: Tracy (Lola Kirke) is feeling adrift in her first year of college. Awkward, unpopular, and just refused membership to her campus literary society, she doesn’t feel like she’s living up to her potential either as a student or as a new resident in New York. Her life abruptly changes course when she is taken under the wing of Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her future stepsister, a resident of Times Square and who is living,Tracy believes, “like a young woman should live, who wants to spend her youth well.”  Soon Tracy is embroiled in a wild adventure as Brooke’s plan to open a restaurant takes them to Connecticut to face her nemesis, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind,  before asking her ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus), for money.

Noah Baumbach came to prominence a decade ago with his wonderful take on dysfunctional urban family life
in The Squid and the Whale (2005) and since then has continued to explore the nature of being young in New York in a series of distinctive and very funny films including Frances Ha (2013) and While We’re Young (2014).  For Mistress America he teams up again with Frances Ha co-writer and kooky actor Greta Gerwig who, as she did in their previous outing, dominates the screen with her unique and irresistible presence. She’s a force. I remember reading an article about the writing of Frances Ha which, like the new film, often feels to be loose and improvised in its dialogue. Not so, according to Baumbach, who spoke about the diligence with which he and Gerwig crafted that screenplay, first as co-writers and then as director and actor. The result in both films is snappy, savvy, sharp-witted dialogue that drives the story forward at a cracking pace with an energy not unlike New York itself.

But as terrific as Gerwig is, she is well matched in this film by Kirke whose performance provides a perfect counterpoint to her. Together they crackle on the screen as Tracy is drawn into the mayhem of Brooke’s chaotic world and, in the process, is liberated from her more introverted self. In fact, the whole cast is excellent in both their characterisation and comedic style. This isn’t a gag-fest - it’s character and story-based comedy that relies on great acting and great timing and it has those qualities in spades.

For me, the highlight is when Brooke and Tracy along with Tracy’s friend,Tony (Matthew Shear), and his jealous girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), find themselves in Dylan and Mamie-Clair’s house with their taciturn neighbour, Harold (Dean Wareham), and Karen, a pregnant member (Cindy Cheung) of Mamie-Claire’s book club.  By the time we reach this scene, we know enough about these eight characters that Baumbach can let them and their respective stories loose in a beautifully choreographed and complex cross-purpose dialogue scene that we rarely see on screen without the presence of a dining table to anchor the action. It’s an impressive and hilarious sequence reminiscent of the great screwball comedies like Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday.




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