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Mistress America

D: Noah Baumbach / 84m

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Kathryn Erbe, Cindy Cheung, Dean Wareham

Though not as prolific as Woody Allen, writer/director Noah Baumbach has made a name for himself by operating in the same milieu as Allen (though without the need for including May-December relationships), and for making witty, intelligent comedies that examine the human condition in a warm, deeply rewarding manner. Since his debut with Kicking and Screaming (1995), Baumbach has consistently entertained audiences with his mix of angst-ridden characters facing uncertain futures and sparkling dialogues. He’s a clever, erudite writer and a carefree, spontaneous director, and with movies such as The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Margot at the Wedding (2007) propping up his resumé, he’s a movie maker whose indie sensibilities often make for an enjoyable viewing experience. (By now you’re probably thinking, “there’s a but coming”, and you’d be right, though it’s not coming right now.)

In his latest, Baumbach, along with star and co-writer Gerwig, has fashioned a tale of self-imposed isolation and longing that finds itself butting heads with an examination of self-deception and longing. Tracy (Kirke) is a college student with a superiority complex and a consuming need to be accepted by the Lit Group, the one group she feels are of the same intellectual merit as herself (so it’d be okay to be a member). She submits a short story but is rejected. Faced with spending the approaching Thanksgiving by herself – unsurprisingly, Tracy has no real friends – a reminder from her mother (Erbe) that her soon-to-be step-sister Brooke lives in New York as well leads her to getting in touch and the two of them meeting up.

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In comparison to Tracy’s mostly solitary, mostly unfulfilling existence, Brooke is gregarious, constantly upbeat, well-liked, and in a relationship with a man who is helping her to open a restaurant. Tracy is dazzled by the range of Brooke’s social, personal and business involvements, and the evening (and next morning) they spend together inspires her to write another story for the Lit Group. Before she submits it she shows it to a fellow student who’s also keen to join the Lit Group, Tony (Shear). Tracy once had a crush on Tony but since they met he’s started dating Nicolette (Jones), a development Tracy doesn’t quite understand or agree with.

Tracy begins spending more and more time with Brooke and their sisterly relationship grows stronger and deeper. But Brooke’s plans to open her restaurant are thrown into disarray when her boyfriend dumps her and pulls out of the deal. Advised by a psychic that she needs to reconnect with someone from her past, someone who owes her money, Brooke is convinced she should visit an old friend, Mamie-Claire (Lind). Mamie-Claire not only stole Brooke’s boyfriend, Dylan (Chernus) and married him, she also stole Brooke’s T-shirt design (“hard flowers”) and made a mint out of it. Tracy enlists the aid of Tony (who has a car) to get there, and Nicolette goes too, her jealousy unable to let her stay behind if Tony is going to be alone with two other women.

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At Mamie-Claire’s, Brooke’s old friend proves to be less than agreeable to the idea of investing in the restaurant. Brooke persists, wanting to speak to Dylan who isn’t there. When he finally arrives home he’s more enthusiastic than Mamie-Claire and agrees to lend Brooke the money she needs but not for the same reason as she needs it. Meanwhile, Nicolette confronts Tony over her belief that he and Tracy are sleeping together, and when the opportunity to read Tracy’s story (which is about Brooke and isn’t exactly flattering) presents itself, Nicolette uses it to confront Tracy. In the end, everyone there reads it, but it’s Brooke’s reaction that has the biggest effect on Tracy, an effect that has unexpected implications.

(Now for that but.)

Maybe it’s the involvement of Gerwig in the writing process, or maybe Baumbach was just having an off-script, but Mistress America – the title refers to a female superhero Brooke can see herself being – has one crucial flaw that it never overcomes, or even appears likely to overcome: that in Tracy and Brooke it has two central characters that it’s almost impossible to care about. Tracy is an emotional and social leech, a hanger-on to Brooke’s coat-tails who has little or no discernible personality away from the people she manages to be around. She mirrors everyone and reflects nothing of herself – because there’s nothing to reflect. She should be a sympathetic character because of this, but in the hands of Baumbach and Gerwig she’s just another sad, lonely character who’s chosen to be that way; she doesn’t even try to be different, or change, and at the movie’s end we see exactly the same person we met at the beginning.

Brooke (Greta Gerwig) takes Tracy (Lola Kirke) under her wing in Mistress America.

In contrast, Brooke is so self-absorbed, so lacking in emotional acuity and self-awareness that when she talks about the problems she faces it’s like listening to someone who has no idea that all the things she’s feeling are no different to what anyone else feels. Take this for example: “Of course it’s possible to hurt me. I’m the most sensitive person.” It’s said at a moment when the movie attempts to be dramatic and ironic at the same time, but the irony is miscued and the drama is heavy handed, leaving the viewer to either laugh because it’s probably expected, or shake their heads in disappointment. (It’s also the one time in the movie where the “action” really feels like action and not passive observation, a trait the movie relies on far too often.)

In their roles, Gerwig is garrulous and whiny, while Kirke is listless and needy, four qualities that would cause most people to look the other way, and with Mistress America it’s no different. And faced with such an uphill struggle, the viewer has no choice but to hope that character arcs will be achieved, lessons will be learnt, and personalities will be rebuilt for the better. Alas, Baumbach and Gerwig have other ideas and none of these things happen. In the end it’s better to spend time with Tony and Nicolette, whose romantic war of attrition is one of the movie’s better attractions (Jones in particular is a deadly delight as the disbelieving Nicolette, all spite and anger and acid one-liners). In fact, it’s a better idea to spend time with any of the supporting characters, as they generate far more interest than the movie’s two spinsters in the making.

It also doesn’t help that he movie feels self-congratulatory throughout, as if it’s pulled off a clever piece of artistry. But while there are flashes of the confidence and the brio that Baumbach brought to some of his earlier work, there aren’t enough to make Mistress America more interesting or intriguing. If Brooke had been a little less erratic in her thinking, and Tracy a little less uptight about her social position then the viewer might have had a better understanding and/or liking of them, but without these tweaks it leaves said viewer wondering why they, like Brooke’s business partners, shouldn’t just get up and walk away.

Rating: 5/10 – a misfire that only occasionally engages its audience, Mistress America proves difficult to like thanks to the limited scope of its central characters and their misplaced sense of entitlement; when a line such as “Why don’t you just put pasta up her pussy?” (yes, it’s Nicolette) carries more weight and emotional honesty than the patronising “Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business”, then you know something isn’t right in indie land.

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