College is supposed to be the place where you have the time of your life, the sanctuary that offers a brave new world of exciting new opportunities, friends and experiences. But in Noah Baumbach’s terrific — and terrifically funny — new film, 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke) finds her new life at Barnard College in New York much less thrilling than she anticipated. The promised whirlwind of social and intellectual activity turns out to be far more solitary than she expected. Her social life is nonexistent. Her roommate is a drag. The one Columbia guy in her class she might date (Matthew Shear) chose another girlfriend, and the exclusive literary society she badly wants to be part of rejects her.
Then she finally takes her mother’s advice and calls Brooke (Greta Gerwig), her stepsister-to-be (their parents plan to marry in a few months). Brooke lives in New York City, too. She’s a real grown-up — 30! — an adult who, Tracy tells herself, would have a real, busy, interesting life and no interest in hanging out with a college kid.
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But Brooke is welcoming, and Tracy is immediately overwhelmed by the charismatic older woman, who seems incapable of not letting every thought in her head drop out of her lips. Tracy is too inexperienced and too lonely — at least initially — to recognize that Brooke is a hot mess whose dreams of grandeur and schemes for getting rich are too wild and impractical to succeed (her latest venture: She wants to open a restaurant that’s also a store, a community center and maybe a place where you can get your hair cut).
Written by Baumbach and Gerwig — who also wrote the wonderful Frances Ha, in which Gerwig starred — Mistress America is essentially a bittersweet love story, not in a sexual sense but in an emotional one. Baumbach is one of the few male filmmakers to focus on relationships between women (in Frances Ha and Margot at the Wedding), and he’s adept at making flawed, self-absorbed characters sympathetic. Brooke isn’t quite as off-putting or obnoxious as Jeff Daniels was as the egotistical father in The Squid and the Whale, but the characters share qualities that you recognize immediately as being the sort of attributes that would make you crazy if you spent 10 minutes in their presence.
Gerwig, not surprisingly, is a marvel: mercurial, thin-skinned, haughty, desperate, funny, warm, a magnetic presence who mesmerizes the audience in the same way she attracts Tracy. You can’t take your eyes off her. With a steadily growing list of impressive indie credits, she deserves big stardom and awards, and with any luck she’ll get both. Kirke (little sister to Jemima of HBO’s Girls) is good, too, though her role is less flashy. Her Tracy isn’t merely a cliched shrinking violet in thrall to a more vivacious woman. She’s smart and just needs a little inspiration, and Brooke’s addled logic and half-baked schemes provide the perfect fodder for the budding writer — though you sense that Brooke might not be so pleased seeing herself rendered in a work of fiction.
But Mistress America isn’t a deep psychological examination of women’s friendships. First and foremost, it’s a comedy, and it’s simply hilarious (the scene in which Brooke, with Tracy and friends in tow, visits her old boyfriend and his new wife to offer them a business opportunity, revels in its absurdity for longer than you’d think possible). “You can’t really want things till you’re 30,” Brooke tells Tracy, and in that statement we glimpse the anguished woman who understands that everything she’s grasping for is slipping away. That we want to comfort her despite her bossy assertions is a credit to Baumbach and Gerwig, who cannot possibly write another movie fast enough to suit me.
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Michael Chernus, Heather Lind.
Director: Noah Baumbach.
Screenwriters: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 84 minutes. Language, some sexual references. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, Sunset, Grove, O Cinema Wynwood, South Beach; in Broward: Paradise, Gateway, Cinema Paradiso Hollywood; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Palace, Delray.