Mistress America: Dream, Baby, Dream, by David Bax
“You can’t know what it is to want things until you’re 30,” says Brooke (Greta Gerwig) in Noah Baumbach’ lively and hilarious new movie, Mistress America. The line gets a laugh both because it’s funny and because it’s so obviously false. Yet it speaks to the deeper truth at the heart of the film. Not one character, whose ages roughly span the 18-45 demographic, has this whole adulthood thing figured out but each of them all pretty sure he or she is on the cusp of discovering the answers.
Tracy (Lola Kirke) is an eighteen year old college freshman in Manhattan dealing with a standard case of away from home blues. Her soon-to-be remarried mother – played by Kathryn Erbe, probably the most recognizable face in the case after Gerwig – urges Tracy to look up Brooke, who will be her stepsister after the Thanksgiving weekend wedding. The two quickly establish a mutually beneficial relationship where Tracy has found someone who’s living a life of non-stop, semi-bohemian adventure to which she can aspire and Brooke has found someone to whom her lack of direction still seems romantic. Meanwhile, though, Tracy uses Brooke as the inspiration for a short story that suggests she’s not as naive and adoring as she may have appeared.
Along with the soaring Frances Ha, Mistress America is evidence that Gerwig the actor is at her best when interpreting the words of Gerwig the screenwriter. She plays Brooke to perfection, making her delusions of having been wronged or of opening a restaurant pitiably transparent while always keeping her charismatic and magnetic enough to buy that Tracy would be in her thrall. Kirke’s performance helps, of course, believably portraying Tracy’s mix of intelligence with lack of experience.
Many of the film’s best performances, however, are the smaller, more overtly humorous ones, like Michael Chernus as Brooke’s ex-boyfriend, Dylan. That’s fitting because Mistress America is the funniest mvoie of Baumbach’s career and the first that should correctly be described as a comedy first. More specifically, with its leaping, dynamic, machine-gun dialogue, it’s classic screwball, with a touch of farce in the lengthy sequence that takes place in Dylan’s posh suburban home. It may, however, be the first screwball comedy to set a montage to “Dream, Baby, Dream” by Suicide.
That identity as a comedy is what makes Mistress America unique but is also the source of its few weak spots. It’s occasionally irksome when it maintains its ratatat pace right through a more emotional beat, like a guy driving a running joke into the ground.
In total, though, the movie’s point is poignantly made. Tracy is looking to Brooke for pointers on how to live but Brooke is only just starting to figure those things out herself. Maybe the same can even be said for Tracy’s mom, embarking on a new life’s course. Yet Tracy’s writing betrays a more certain mind than the one she carries into the rest of her life. Sometimes, Mistress America tells us, it’s easier to understand others than yourself. Of we’re paying attention, though, maybe we can learn something from them.