'Mistress America' Is A Chick Flick Wearing The Clever Disguise Of An Art Film

By James Jay Edwards
Released: August 28, 2015
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A lonely college freshman's life is turned upside down by her impetuous, adventurous soon-to-be stepsister.

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Film Review
Noah Baumbach's career seems to have the same ebb-and-flow as that of Woody Allen, with the high peaks being separated by sea-level valleys. He followed up the remarkable The Squid and the Whale with the disappointing Margot at the Wedding. Then, he went from the charming Francis Ha to the mediocre While We're Young. True to form, Baumbach bounces back from While We're Young with another great movie, the highly enjoyable Mistress America.

Mistress America stars Lola Kirke (Gone Girl) as Tracy Fishko, a young girl who is overwhelmed when she goes off to college in New York City. Knowing no one else in The Big Apple, Tracy reluctantly calls her mother's fiancée's daughter, Brooke Cardenes (Francis Ha's Greta Gerwig), an adventurous social butterfly who lives in the heart of everything, both literally and figuratively. Brooke shows Tracy how much fun the city can be, taking her to clubs, getting her drunk, and introducing her to bands. As the two future step-sisters become closer, they start to confide in one another, and Tracy learns all of Brooke's seemingly hair-brained schemes for financial and spiritual success. While Tracy encourages Brooke to follow her dreams, she also finds a muse in her, secretly using Brooke as the inspiration for a character in a series of stories that she writes.

Mistress America. All rights reserved.

Noah Baumbach works well with Greta Gerwig. Not just on a director-actress level, but as co-writers as well. Mistress America is the second feature co-written by the pair. As the movie's star, Gerwig completely anchored Francis Ha both onscreen and off, and there's a similar feeling of her presence within the writing of Mistress America, particularly in the witty repartee between Brooke and Tracy (which is, admittedly, half the movie). The story itself is the classic tale of struggling student-meets-successful mentor, but Mistress America is much more than just a simple coming-of-age story about an innocent girl being guided through the perils and pitfalls of the big city. At first, it seems as if Tracy is a tagalong, but once the two ladies get to know each other and the walls come down, they become equals, with Tracy supporting and cheerleading for Brooke, and vice versa. Brooke learns just as much from Tracy as Tracy learns from Brooke. Is it a chick flick? Well, technically, yeah. But, because it was made under the watchful eye of Noah Baumbach, it wears the clever disguise of an Art Film.

Mistress America is a smart, engaging, and entertaining film. There's no big world-ending drama, just a couple of nice personal stories. On the Baumbach scale, it falls closer to Francis Ha than it does to While We're Young, and that's exactly how it should be.
There's a point in Mistress America, basically the entire third act, where Noah Baumbach seems to just be showing off. Not showing off in a "look what I can do" kind of way, but it's like he's saying "look what I can get my cast to do." The last quarter of the movie takes place almost completely in a single location, with most of the principals of the cast, and absolutely no frills. And it's the strongest section of the movie. It develops like a stage play that is tightly blocked, expertly choreographed, and perfectly timed. Of course, the cast deserves a lot of credit as well, but Baumbach's direction in the third act of the movie is absolutely flawless. From camera angles to performances, Baumbach directs the heck out of Mistress America.
The obvious leads in Mistress America are Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke, and the gals are fun to watch, but they're not quite enough to carry the entire movie. Luckily, they have plenty of help from a very talented and skilled ensemble. Matthew Shear (who also worked with Baumbach in While We're Young) plays Tracy's dorky not-boyfriend from college, Tony. Michael Chernus (Captain Phillips) plays Brooke's ex, and Heather Lind ("TURN: Washington's Spies") plays the rival who stole him from her. Cindy Cheung (Obvious Child) and Dean Wareham (who's becoming a staple of Baumbach's movies, with appearances in Francis Ha and While We're Young as well) show up in small but quality roles. The entire cast comes together towards the end of the film in a series of silly events that would almost give the impression of being improvised if the dialogue wasn't so well-written. It's hard to imagine any of the roles in Mistress America, even the small ones, being played by any other actors because the camaraderie is so perfect. It's a joy to watch that cast on that screen in that movie.
Comedy Factor
It's a little unfair that Noah Baumbach's movies get classified as comedies, because they're really not. Instead of being laugh-out-loud funny, they're knowingly-smilingly amusing. Nothing has changed with Mistress America. It's full of wit and charm, but it's more of a purely entertaining movie than any kind of a knee-slapper. There's a chuckle here and there, but nothing side-splitting. It's just an enjoyable film, but not a gut-busting comedy. Basically, Mistress America is the type of movie that audiences have come to expect from Noah Baumbach.

Release Date
August 28, 2015
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