Mistress America (2015)
Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind, Cindy Cheung. Directed by Noah Baumbach.
Tracy has just begun her frosh year at Barnard, and college isn’t turning out quite the way it was promised. She’s rejected from the literary society, her roommate is unfriendly, her professors aren’t happy with her contributions in class, and if the fun campus life that was illustrated in the viewbook still exists, she can’t seem to find it. But her mother is about to remarry, and her future step-sister, the thirty-something Brooke, has an apartment, a life, and several jobs in New York City, so Tracy gives her a call one evening after finishing dinner by herself. So needy is she for caring companionship that when Brooke asks if she’s eaten yet, Tracy says she hasn’t, and meets Brooke for dinner and drinks.
Brooke is free-spirited and adventurous: she jumps on stage and sings with the band in one of the bars she visits with Tracy; she lives in a huge apartment that’s zoned for commercial use; she has a boyfriend who’s helping her open her own restaurant. Tracy sees in Brooke a life lived outside the lines, someone who inspires her to stretch herself as a person and as a writer.
When things go a little crazy, Tracy comes along for the ride, bringing a frosh Columbia student and his girlfriend along, too. The foursome meets an ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend at the mansion they share.
Greta Gerwig as Brooke is flighty and charismatic, but it’s difficult to tell if she’s smart or just really good at acting smart, and Tracy as her wide-eyed future stepsister is involved but not really involved, a kind of Nick Caraway to Brooke’s Jay Gatsby. It’s an interesting relationship, and the character’s conversations are fascinating, but not for how well they connect Brooke with Tracy. Instead, each character’s lines seem to be inspired by the other’s, without actually being responses, as if each is only vaguely aware that there is a topic of conversation, not really listening to the other except for jumping-in points where they can share their next thoughts.
Add a few more characters to the dynamic, and you have a truly bizarre situation with non-sequiturs galore. Conversations sound like two or three different plays are being performed at the same time in the same space, and at times the blocking and set resemble those belonging to a stage play, each actor playing to an imaginary audience. I was reminded of several of David Mamet’s films, all adaptations of his plays, and wondered if the script wasn’t first conceived of as a play.
It’s more strange than funny, but it’s funny enough to keep one engaged.