Watching the opening scenes of Mistress America is like stepping onto a runaway treadmill. It takes a moment for you to gain your footing as you stumble to keep track of the fast-moving shots and the fast-talking characters. Once you do, though, you’ll easily fall into a groove, and everything becomes much more clear. As it turns out, the quickness all serves a purpose — as usual.
Coming off of two exemplary films, Frances Ha and While We’re Young, Brooklyn-born filmmaker Noah Baumbach takes us back to New York for a story he co-wrote with indie darling Greta Gerwig. The film opens with Tracy (Lola Kirke). Like many cliches that have come and gone before her, she came to the “Big City” to become a writer, but her freshman college experience isn’t as instantly gratifying as she dreamt it would be. She can’t seem to make many friends, she can’t even land a boyfriend, and the elite writers society she’s been dying to get into won’t accept her short story submission.
When she’s at her lowest point — if you call sitting by yourself at a pizza joint low — she finally takes her mom’s advice and calls her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy is instantly swept up in Brooke’s adventurous lifestyle, which entails bouncing from place to place, job to job. She almost instantly deifies Brooke as this “it girl,” the kind of person who wants to open her own restaurant that doubles as a “community center” of sorts. Even though she knows Brooke is destined to fail, Tracy doesn’t care. With little sense of her own identity, she’s determined to leach onto Brooke’s thirst for life in an attempt to develop her own — and if that means using Brooke as inspiration for a new short story submission to the writers society, then so be it.
Mistress America is Noah Baumbach moving at the speed of Gilmore Girls. Most of the characters are made up of signatures of the filmmaker — clever, captivating and charismatic — but they speak to each other the way Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel did on that WB series. Much like the overall pace of the film, there are little to no pauses in between conversations, and when everyone is finally done talking, you’re shocked that you understood it all and that it’s clever. Amid all the chaos and noise is order.
Though we’re looking through the eyes of Tracy, the film, to me, is all about Brooke, and Brooke is all about the alluring performance of Greta Gerwig. It’s films like this, where we see something once again entirely new for this actress, that I lament the failure of How I Met Your Dad. The world should see more of Gerwig. Mistress America is all about its characters, and Brooke is intoxicating. You want to keep her talking, follow her around, carry her purse, go out and buy pasta for when she’s done tutoring or whatever side job she’s currently working at the time — all of which Tracy does for her. And really everything else about the film reflects Brooke. She’s the essence of New York — bustling, forever adapting, never sitting still for an instant because sitting still means death. She’s like the city that never sleeps, and everyone who comes into contact with her has their own projections of what she is and can do for them. And above all, she’s entertaining as hell.
There is energy in everything Brooke says, whether she’s talking about how she designed the waiting room for this laser hair removal center close by the Bowery Hotel, or whether she’s telling Tracy and her 18-year-old friends that they should be touching each other all the time. As a viewer, you never want this chaotic nonsense to end, but we know we’re rocketing towards something, which turns out to be a comedy of errors. In the strongest scene of the film, Brooke confronts her longtime nemesis, Mimi Claire. Mimi lives in a lavish, glass-walled Connecticut home she owns with her husband off the money she earned from a t-shirt idea. All of which she stole from Brooke, including her two cats. Multiple players stroll into the picture as Brooke tries to bail out her crumbling restaurant business one more time, and the chaos starts up again, but this time we’ve been conditioned to crave it.
Even now, as I look back on the film that seemed to fly by in an instant, I can’t get Gerwig off of my mind. She has something that Ray Bradbury writes about in terms of the craft of writing. He explains that writing requires “zest” and “gusto,” and Gerwig has this when it comes to acting. She’s an elusive gem that most of America has yet to discover, but it’s that rare quality that makes her performances special for those who’ve been touched by them.