Film Review: Mistress America (USA, 2015)

In Frances Ha, co-writers (and real-life couple) Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig brought to the screen this generation’s twenty-something creative; simultaneously spoilt and burdened by choice. Their Frances, played adorably by Gerwig herself, was lively and resourceful, optimistic yet melancholic in her struggle to achieve some level of “success” and establishing a career post-college. Mistress America, Baumbach and Gerwig’s sophomore effort expands on those ideas, with two women either side of Frances’ age group.

First, there’s Tracy, portrayed paradoxically with green-eyed wonderment alongside deep-voiced sarcasm by newcomer Lola Kirke (little sister of Jemima Kirke, aka Jessa from Girls). She’s started her first year of an arts degree in New York and is feeling lonely; the bright lights of the big city aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Following her mother’s encouragement, she gets in touch with Brooke (Gerwig), who resides in New York (smack bang in Times Square in fact) and is the daughter of Tracy’s mother’s fiancé. So, Tracy’s stepsister-to-be.

Brooke is almost thirty. She keeps busy as a spin class instructor who moonlights as an interior decorator and occasional algebra tutor. She’s confident and the life of the party, but she’s also the kind of person who has hundreds of acquaintances and very few (if any) truly close friends. After just one wild night out together in New York, Tracy becomes instantly smitten by Brooke. Not only does Tracy want to spend every spare minute with her, she also starts penning a short story inspired by Brooke’s musings and infectious attitude towards life. When Brooke needs to source investors for a restaurant/salon/community centre that she dreams of opening, Tracy will do anything she can to help.

Unlike Frances Ha, Mistress America is a film whose parts are funnier and more enjoyable than the whole. There are innumerable one-liners that are so cleverly crafted and hilarious that I want to, in Brooke’s words, “shorten that, punch it up and turn it into a tweet.” The dialogue is lightening fast and irresistibly witty, but it’s often delivered in a manner so dead-pan that I felt myself cringing several times at its read-aloud sound.

Brooke’s conceitedness becomes overbearing at times and snooty Mamie-Claire (Brooke’s ex-best friend who pops up later in the film) feels too stereotyped to swallow. The screwball comedy style of the main act was fun for a time and edited seamlessly, but dragged by the end, and its interjection made the conclusion feel odd and detached.

To its credit, Mistress America depicted a much more down-to-earth and realistic portrayal of the freshman experience than most other films with college-aged characters. Kirke and the actors playing her college friends were believably young, both in looks and in naïve optimism, irrational jealousy, and awkward inexperience.

Mistress America didn’t fill my heart up and make me want to gallop down the street the way that Frances Ha did, much to my disappointment. At the very least, it’s an imaginative, genre-mashing comedy, but the furrowed brows and bemused scoffs it elicits far outweigh the genuine laughs.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mistress America is in cinemas October 29.