Somehow, seemingly overnight, Noah Baumbach has become one of the cinema’s finest observers of young people. At a time when theaters are flooded with adaptations of YA novels about teenagers suffering from terminal illnesses or trapped within hellish dystopias (all of which seem to star Shailene Woodley), Baumbach’s films quietly and efficiently nail the experience of young adulthood—the frustration of not yet knowing what your place in the world will be, and the exuberance of discovering the people, things, and ideas that turn you on. His new film Mistress America is an unofficial companion piece to 2013’s beguiling Frances Ha, both of which form a loose trilogy with 2005’s The Squid and the Whale as films about brainy kids lost in a New York City ripped from the pages of E. L. Konigsberg and Louise Fitzhugh.
This time the kid is a college freshman named Tracy (played by newcomer Lola Kirke) who fumbles through her first semester at Barnard, palling around with a nerdy boy from her English class and trying to get published in the school’s exclusive literary magazine. Then she meets Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the slightly older daughter of her mother’s fiancé, who looks like Carole Lombard and acts like Auntie Mame and makes pithy observations and dreams of opening a restaurant and consults psychics and has an apartment in Times Square and a boyfriend in Greece and a nemesis in Greenwich, Connecticut. Coming back to her dorm room after a night out with Brooke, Tracy is star-eyed, exhilarated. Brooke’s life appears to be as dynamic and intoxicating as Tracy’s is drab and safe. When Tracy begins to consider Brooke with the more critical eye of a budding writer, however, she notices a desperation and a creeping sadness underneath Brooke’s up-tempo seize-the-day zeal. Brooke doesn’t turn out to be an opportunist and a schemer like the hipster couple in Baumbach’s last movie, While We’re Young; Mistress America is a kinder, less cynical, but no less observant, portrait of what it means to be young, passionate, and directionless in the twenty-first century. But she does turn out to be not so different from Tracy, and not so much more grown up. They’re both trying to figure out what they want out of life and how to get it.
The film is furiously paced and frequently hilarious—Baumbach and Gerwig’s ear for comedy is sharper and more arch than in Frances Ha (they co-wrote both screenplays together). The one-liners fly at you faster than you’re able to process them, so much so that by the time the film is deep in the middle of a lengthy, digressive sequence at the home of that Greenwich, Connecticut nemesis you start to feel fatigued. (For what it’s worth, the same thing happens to me whenever I watch Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, another talky comedy with too many notes, however brilliant each one may be.) The primary reason why this farcical middle section of Mistress America doesn’t quite work, though, is because the relationship between Tracy and Brooke gets crowded out by a small army of supporting characters. I much prefer the film’s first act, in which we simply observe Kirke, in a lovely and understated performance, play the straight woman to Gerwig’s fabulous screwball diva as they march through the city. Seeing through Tracy’s eyes, we fall in love not just with Brooke but also with the glamour of New York and the thrill of being young.