Sundance 2015: Noah Baumbach’s Energetic Mistress America Is Only His Second Best Movie of 2015

By  · Published on January 26th, 2015

Fox Searchlight

What’s it like to be too smart for friends? Noah Baumbach’s films have often addressed that question in one way or another – though Greenberg stands as perhaps the best example of such a query, both Kicking and Screaming and Margot At the Wedding wonder about it, too – but his most recent outing, the thoroughly charming Mistress America does so with a worthy, sweet leading lady (Lola Kirke) who comes to terms with her apparent unfriendability just as the audience also realizes what’s really keeping people at bay. The film is prime Baumbach, a funny and conversational outing about acerbic and intelligent people who are somehow deficient (although relatably so) in one way or another.

Starring Kirke and Baumbach’s own muse (and now screenwriting partner) Greta Gerwig, Mistress America amusingly addresses big questions about relationships, passion, and goals with sly wit and an amiable touch of sweetness. It’s good, but it’s still only Baumbach’s second best film of the year (his While We’re Young will hit theaters on March 27, and goddamn is that film a winner) – and that’s a compliment.

Baumbach and Gerwig have explored similar territory before, and it’s no big shock that Mistress America feels like a companion piece to their charming 2012 comedy, Frances Ha. With that film, however, the duo were exploring the passion and intensity of female friendships built on years of affection and familiarity – Gerwig’s Frances and Mickey Sumner’s Sophie had been tight since college – while Mistress America is more concerned with playing with passion and intensity that comes with instant connections and relationships. That Tracy (Kirke) and Brooke (Gerwig) are about to be sisters – literally connected to each other through love and law – is a wink to those kind of swift connections. One day two people are nothing, then they’re family. And then what?

Whipsmart college freshman Tracy is desperate for a pal, and when she finally makes one in class after weeks of loneliness at her new school (and also after telling her mother, very annoyed, that no one makes friends in class), she’s invigorated, giddily bouncing around her life with fresh enthusiasm. That Tony (an extremely funny and deadpan Matthew Shear) might be a romantic possibility doesn’t even matter to Tracy – though, of course, that is discussed later in the film – she’s just happy to have a new buddy who likes the same things she likes and, perhaps even better, hates the same things she hates. When Tony throws her over for a new lady (Jasmine Cephas Jones as Nicolette, who brings her own unhinged comedic sensibilities a role that might otherwise feel minor), Tracy is again alone, finally pushed to call the mysterious Brooke Cardinas (the daughter of the man Tracy’s mother is about to marry, an instant sister).

Purposely over-the-top and hilariously heightened, Gerwig’s Brooke is a loving send-up of the tired (and disavowed) Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Flighty and inconsistent and dreamy and potentially actually deranged, Brooke is a big breath of fresh air into Tracy’s stale life, even as she threatens to totally up-end it. It’s a tricky role, a winking smirk at the kind of characters that populate other indie films about characters discovering themselves, but Gerwig pulls it off – she knows this character, after all, she did write her – and Brooke is a joy to watch, even as she’s utterly, terrifying exhausting to be around. The two girls zip around the city getting into all sorts of almost trouble, and Tracy is again invigorated and, in this case, actually inspired by Brooke (a budding writer, Tracy puts her and Brooke’s exploits down on paper, with later repercussions).

The first half of Mistress America is about as fizzy and fun as Baumbach gets, which is why it’s so strange when his and Gerwig’s script takes a left turn around the film’s mid-point, straight into, well, fizzier territory. Mistress America doesn’t get dark or weird or anything like that, but it does turn into a fixed-point farce, as Tracy and Brooke (and Tony and Nicolette) head to Connecticut to extract money from his ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend for one of her many flights of fancy.

The film, while still hilarious and a joy to watch, is suddenly those things in a different way, and the disconnect between the two features is sharp. Both halves of the film work, just not together, and after all the dizzy happiness of Mistress America wears off, we’re left wondering why Baumbach didn’t just make a pair of films from the material, sewing up 2015 as the year of Baumbach. Perhaps he’s just smarter than the rest of us.

The Upside: Lola Kirke’s star-making performance, Greta Gerwig’s unflagging and exuberant charm, a gifted supporting cast, high energy, laugh out loud funny.

The Downside: Feels like two distinctly different movies, the tonal inconsistencies are disappointing, would work better as two different (and great!) features.

On the Side: Mistress America was long referred to as Baumbach and Gerwig’s “secret film,” and the pair made it