Mistress America is a film that deftly strikes the balance between comedy and drama while delivering a multitude of witty one liners, stray observations and well observed character sketches all pulled together by a magnetic central performance by Gerwig.
College freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) is indecisive, a procrastinator and utterly assured of her own brilliance. In short she's a typical first year student. She bonds with fellow freshman Tony (Matthew Shear) over their shared rejection ofthe exclusive, briefcase-carrying literary society, but when Tracy feels rejected by him too, she follows her mother's suggestion and meets up with her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Brooke (Gerwig).
Brooke is a whirlwind of misplaced creative energy and unearned confidence in her abilities. She keeps up a constant monologue about life, the universe and everything to anyone who'll listen. She sings with the band, she has to enter her commercially zoned apartment through a fire exit and she interrupts conversations about frozen yogurt to abruptly mention her mother's death. She's a mess - but a brilliant one. She's a satire of a very certain kind of person; that person who extravagantly complains when photographed on a night out (“Must we document ourselves? Must we?”) but maintains a narcissistic, prolific twitter account in order to better 'market' herself.
Feeling inspired both in her life and her writing by Brooke's non self-censorious attitude and lack of inhibitions, Tracy immediately starts on her next short story - a thinly veiled fictionalised and not incredibly complimentary portrait of Brooke. Baumbach and Gerwig's script is as assured and rapid-fire as it's central character and throughout it keeps a His Girl Friday rate of dialogue that manages to never feel over-stuffed. It's a surprisingly thoughtful script, too, even if it does border on being too faux intellectual for its own good. What really holds the film together though, is the performances of the two leads.
Kirke plays the innocent and fascinatedly bewildered Tracy of the first act perfectly and manages the more nuanced character she is revealed as later just as capably, whilst Gerwig's Brooke shines in every scene. It's a great comic performance, not only verbal but with plenty of physical comedy, too - one sequence In which Brooke makes a dramatic entrance too early and have to awkwardly shimmy down Times Square's brightly lit steps is particularly inspired. Perhaps more importantly, she pulls off Brooke's vulnerable side well enough to hold the whole performance together and keeps the character from being wholly unlikeable.
Baumbach's direction is slick but unobtrusive and the film maintains a decent pace while still giving scenes enough room to develop. Moments of emotion or vulnerability for the characters are dealt with briskly, without feeling glossed over.
The final third of the film threatens to veer off and lose focus with a road trip to Connecticut to settle old scores and hopefully get enough investment in Brooke's stalled restaurant/community centre/home away-from-home to finally open. The action ramps up to farcical levels but doesn't build to anything in particular, leaving the whole portion feeling a little aimless. But somehow the film manages to hold together; despite getting briefly distracted by Brooke's lovelorn ex, Dylan (Orange is the New Black's Michael Chernus in an amusing if not exactly against type role) and his quest for some frozen weed, along with a myriad of other subplots, the film keeps its focus on the relationship between the two self-appointed “sisters”, giving a cohesive centre to hang a barrage of jokes about Faulkner, chess, Apocalypto and anything and everything else that springs to mind.
Mistress America is a charming screwball comedy with a fast pace, genuine heart and a firm understanding of what makes characters interesting, relatable and funny. It's a deeply enjoyable film and at under 90 minutes doesn't come close to outstaying its welcome.
Mistress America is now showing at FACT - book your tickets here.