This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, November 2015
The quirkily charming Frances Ha won hearts and critical acclaim two film festivals ago, so it’s natural that the repeated pairing of director Noah Baumbach and lead actress/co-writer Greta Gerwig should feel somewhat like a trip down memory lane.
Sticking to the seminal setting of New York City (because why move away from that wonderful town), Gerwig again takes the tale’s titular role, but this time her leading lady status is filled by TV starlet Lola Kirke. (Aside from small roles in Gone Girl and Reaching for the Moon, her face will be fresh to most audiences.) The coltish, doe-eyed Kirke plays Tracy, a smart young woman in her first year at university who is not fitting in. An aspiring writer, she longs for the kudos bestowed by the secretive and elitist Mobius Literary Society, but instead winds up drinking home-made screwdrivers in the dorm room of a platonic male friend. Tracy’s life then takes a more exotic turn when she meets her soon-to-be stepsister, the adventurous and self-obsessed Brooke (Gerwig).
Like Frances Ha, the script is laden with hilarious, scatty dialogue and while the film sometimes slides into self-indulgence, it’s sufficiently meta to almost get away with it. There’s a lovely evocation of the travails of a budding young author, and Brooke’s particular shade of frivolous is just this side of credible, thanks largely to Tracy’s deadpan foil which helps to soak up the franticness of the pacing and gives us time to absorb the scriptwriters’ considerable wit.
Also like Frances Ha, Mistress America is reminiscent of the TV show Girls (and the metaphor is extended by Lola Kirke’s being the real-life sister of Girls’ Jemima), but while Brooke manages to deliver several of the cleverest insights without appearing disingenuous, the subject matter is kept pretty light and frothy. An hilarious, rather theatrical show-down at the fancy house of an ex-best friend provides the story’s raison d’être and, for many, this will be reason enough to see it.