The latest collaboration between director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig is a fast and funny indie comedy with a heart of looming darkness. Mistress America is packed with charming, narcissistic people doing reckless, selfish things in the name of self-actualization and creativity.
Gerwig plays Brooke, a 30-something New York City creative (that's a noun these days, apparently) who has several dozen entrepreneurial schemes in the air at any given time. Brooke is a frenetic presence; a whirlwind of ideas, inspirations and flights into dime-store psychology.
Most of all, Brooke is an achiever. She wants to open a Brooklyn restaurant called "Mom's" that will be all things to all people—an eatery, hair salon and art gallery where everyone in the city can feel at home.
The other lead is Tracy (Lola Kirke), an NYU freshman and soon-to-be-stepsister of Brooke, as Tracy's mom is marrying Brooke's dad. A talented writer, Tracy needs a New York City mentor to help her navigate the city's treacherous waters. It's an ideal setup: Tracy adores Brooke, and Brooke is happy to be adored.
Baumbach and Gerwig, who wrote the script together, take their premise and run with it for 90 high-velocity minutes. The delirious dialogue pings from atomic zingers to unexpected insights as we meet a procession of sharply drawn supporting characters—old flames, jealous rivals and at least one dubious psychic.
The dialogue is simply gorgeous—lean, mean and crafted to the syllable. You could enjoy this movie with your eyes closed. But don't, because the big comic set piece, set in a crowded Connecticut country home, is one of the most thrilling stunt shows of the year.
Here, the filmmakers bring the funny with a sustained crescendo of rapid-fire exchanges and physical staging, like sweet screwball comedy cut with bitter mumblecore farce. It's brilliant, and Gerwig anchors everything with astonishing deftness.
Throughout the film, the comedy skitters giddily over the darkness churning just underneath. The two lead characters, a college freshman and an early 30-something, are on either end of the Millennial generation, and they're clearly under tremendous pressure.
To achieve and succeed, they feel obliged to be creatively awesome, physically fit, spiritually aligned and business savvy. They have to raise goats, redefine feminism, develop apps and eat properly. They're stressed and selfish because they're terrified. There's a manic quality to the film, and the way Baumbach paces it is definitely part of the point. He puts us inside the heads of Tracy and Brooke, and it's an uncomfortable place to be—funny, but uncomfortable.
The result is a generous piece of filmmaking with some despairing observations under the laughs. Mistress America is the kind of movie you'll want to see twice, so get that first viewing in now and support your local independent cinema.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tunnel vision"