(This film review of “Mistress America” appeared in a shorter form in the Australian Jewish News on 5 November 2015.)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind and Cindy Cheung
When the history of early twenty-first century American film is written, it will become clear that the true inheritor to the Jewish film-making legacy of Woody Allen is Noah Baumbach, who is 33 years Allen’s junior. Like Allen, Baumbach is a Brooklyn-raised (both attended Midwood High School) auteur-style writer/director. With Baumbach’s most recent film, “Mistress America”, it is also clear that – like Allen’s relationships with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow – Baumbach has now found his non-Jewish female muse, in the person of actress/writer Greta Gerwig.
Baumbach has paid homage to Allen throughout his career, through his black and white film-making (“Frances Ha” vs “Manhattan”), his self-conscious vistas of New York City and his close attention to modern New York relationships, many of them featuring Jewish men, with Ben Stiller being a noted favourite (“Greenberg” and “While We’re Young”). Both writer/directors have also specialised, accidentally or not, in creating memorable female characters.
In “Mistress America” (now screening nationally), Baumbach collaborates with Gerwig for the second time (she starred and co-wrote “Frances Ha”) and extends his development of complex, conflicted and comically struggling female characters.
Set in New York City, the action revolves around college freshman (first year unie student) Tracy Fishko, who is played by Lola Kirke, who is Jewish (both of her mother’s parents) and the sister of “Girls” star Jemima Kirke (“Jessa”). The “Girls” connection is relevant, for “Mistress America” feels like a first cousin to Lena Dunham’s television series, with comically confused characters seeking fulfilment and life’s meaning on the streets of the Big Apple (although without the sex).
Tracy has come to study at Columbia University to study literature, and is having a hard go of it, making few friends and spending many lonely hours. Fortunately, her mother (played by the delightful Kathryn Erbe) is about to get re-married, and puts Tracy in touch with her new step-sister to-be, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a thirtysomething charismatic, energetic and entrepreneurial whirlwind filled with ideas and surprises – just what the depressive Tracy needs. Brooke becomes Tracy’s mentor, carting her around the city and allowing Tracy to feel like she is living the romantic life she so craves.
“Mistress America” is a comedy of manners, much more subtle and low-key than Baumbach’s recent work. Everything in the film presents as slightly askew. Not a great deal actually happens, with a looser structure than “Frances Ha”, which may frustrate some viewers who prefer a strong story line. Relationships never quite get off the ground, people talk at – rather than with – one another, as if they are living in separate planes of existence that don’t quite intersect. There may be some clever commentary here about living life in the hyper-connected digital age: some of the details are totally delicious, down to the severely cracked screen of Tracy’s iPhone (how much that simple image tells us).
The film contains serio-comic sequences, such as when Brooke meets an old female high school classmate who declares how much Brooke hurt her by her bullying, with lines such as “I don’t know if you’re a Zen master or a sociopath.”
The highlight of “Mistress America” (the name comes from Tracy’s short story about Brooke) is an elaborate comedy of errors set piece, set in a cold modern suburban Connecticut house with a fabulous river view. Brooke – with Tracy and two reluctant friends in tow – is chasing up an old boyfriend and his wife, also a former friend of hers. They’ve made lots of money from digital businesses, and Brooke’s intention is to obtain a loan of some of it for a new restaurant concept. But the whole experience turns into something much greater – and less – than that. In an almost European or perhaps Marx brothers-style scene, characters pop in and out of rooms, learning new things about each other as relationships unravel and new understandings dawn. The scene lasts possibly 15 minutes, and reminds us of the best of Wes Anderson – possibly not surprising, given that Baumbach and Anderson have collaborated on three films.
(photo below: Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke on the streets of New York City in “Mistress America”.)