Mistress America marks the second collaborative effort of director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig, and the second Baumbach film this year. It’s a bright, watchable comedy about insufferable people and ways we all seem to desperately seek some sense of connection. The title is taken from the short story being penned over the course of the film by _Tracy (Lola Kirke), a Nick Carraway-like observer to Brooke (Greta Gerwig) unique ownership of a 21st century American Dream. Brooke is a type of social autodidact (a word she’s quick to tell you is one of the things she taught herself), a manic vagabond who lives like the self-aware inverse of Gerwig’s Frances Ha. She’s shooting to make it big, open a restaurant that feels like home, but along the way live large at the center of Manhattan: flitting between concerts, parties, events, and meeting with investors and leaving admirers in her wake. Tracy is one such admirer. She’s a first-year undergrad student, struggling to make friends and in awe of the slanted glamour she sees in her soon to be stepsister. It’s a few short steps between seeing Brooke’s bohemian living space in the middle of Times Square and reimagining her as a self-created, self-destructive, ego-driven Gatsby; enigmatic, eccentric, desirable, and constructed entirely from lies.
The film is a chronicle of the brief, uneven friendship between the two women. Though Tracy is roughly a decade Brooke’s junior, she appears to be the more steadfastly mature of the pair. She sees in Brooke both a star to orbit and a subject to pick apart, someone she’s able to study for her own kind of gain. In their own ways, each suffers a different kind of self-righteous narcissism, twin fatal flaws that make them difficult companions for most people they know. Neither seems to be capable of lasting friendships, and so it’s important that they are introduced as components of a would-be blended family: Tracy steps willingly into the role of younger sibling, Brooke easily into the place of wisdom-imparting elder. Even as it’s clear that there’s little to learn from either, the film finds a way to show us just how charismatic Brooke can be, and just how freely she allows Tracy to live in the moments they’re together.
There are few actresses capable of convincing us that a character as obviously flawed as Brooke could be a charming, compelling force, and this is Gerwig’s film from top to bottom. She pulls Tracy’s campus life into her orbit, and we find it easy to believe that her most egregious failures have some kind of untapped potential. This could be because Gerwig is capable of infusing a kind of likability into her very presence. Even when she isn’t the most put together, outwardly attractive character in the frame, she exudes an energy that demands you watch her, but which seems to ask politely. Baumbach understands what it is that we want to see from Gerwig, and even as she fumbles between instances of verbal cruelty and embarrassing haplessness, she can make the character recover with just the right look or action – sometimes it’s a moment of awkward vulnerability, sometimes it’s a kind of effervescent change of subject that suggests she didn’t really mean the thing she just slammed gracelessly onto the table.
Whatever it is, it works, and though Mistress America is a film that feels relatively slight, it’s also one that works to reaffirm the presence of a comedic actress we should be paying more attention to. Though the characters may talk at each other and everyone seems to be listening to their own thoughts more than conversing, Baumbach and Gerwig guide us through a crowd of narcissists in such a way that we remain unscathed.