Film Review: “Mistress America”

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Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 20.47.57

Mistress America, 2015

dir. Noah Baumbach
★★★★

The latest Noah Baumbach film, Mistress America, is a tale of self-reflection, narcissism and relationships. It follows college freshman, Tracy (Lola Kirke), as she begins her first semester and learns how difficult it is to fit in, and as she befriends her would-be step-sister Brooke (Greta Gerwig,) who from the outside seems like the coolest, most self-centred person on the planet. The plot is loose, going from Tracy wanting to be a part of the Literature Society, to her worshiping the ground Brooke steps on, and her friendship with Matthew Shear.

As I said before, it’s both a tale of self-reflection and narcissism, through all the characters. None of them are particularly likeable people, but then again, most characters in Baumbach’s films aren’t likeable people, just like people in real life are mostly unlikeable. In every conversation, every dialogue, there’s that sense that one person is just waiting for the other to finish before they can say their own peace, which again, plays like real life, and that’s what makes this uncomfortable and awkward (though thankfully not as uncomfortable and awkward as The Squid and the Whale.)

It’s a really well-written script, by both Gerwig and Baumbach, and the characters come to life in small but interesting ways. The interactions are verging on surreal, but they also feel realistic in a way that you only get in Baumbach’s films, where it’s set in the real world, but there’s an atmosphere of surreality surrounding it as well. Brooke’s life is like a fairytale at first, but as we go deeper with Tracy, we discover that she is not as confident as she presents herself to be, and that is even analysed in the film itself, when everyone reads the short story Tracy wrote about Brooke (in the single best sequence of the film, set in Brooke’s old friend’s house in the suburbs.) It’s about writers and writing, and how the writers exist in the real world outside of their own heads, but it’s not obnoxious or pretentious like Listen Up Philip, because it treats these people with compassion, and it gives them a heart.

Mistress American also looks great. The sets are all very hipster-y, pretty much as per usual in Baumbach-land. Like While We’re Young, the world looks lived-in but fresh all the same. It’s not filled with computers or gadgets — Tracy herself has only a very beat-up old iPhone which she is only seen using once or twice, while Brooke has what looks like a Blackberry — and while they talk about Twitter and social media, it’s not predominant in the film, and the story feels timeless that way. Brooke, of course, listens to vinyls, and collects tiny vintage aeroplane knick-knacks, and even the modern suburban house they visit is not overly modern, it’s fresh and clean, and it looks a lot like Diane Keaton’s house in Sleeper.

Overall, this is an interesting film. I still don’t know if I like it per se, but I liked watching it. The characters were both real and caricatures at the same time, and there were some really interesting and dynamic compositions. Though not Baumbach’s best work, and definitely not worth comparing to Frances Ha, it’s still a great film, featuring wonderful performances all-around, but especially from Gerwig and Kirke, and it works just as well as a story about self-reflection as it does as an exercise in self-absorption.

review by Mariana Duarte 

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