Sundance 2015 Review: Mistress America

After the success of the loveable Frances Ha!, it is no surprise that one of the hottest tickets at this year’s Sundance Festival is Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s subsequent feature collaboration, Mistress America.

Tracy (Lola Kirk), a lonely university freshman, gets a new lease of life when she discovers that her mother is to remarry and she is gaining a new stepsister as a result. Tracy strikes up an immediate bond with her soon-to-be-sister, the impetuous girl about town, Brooke (Greta Gerwig).

The combination of Gerwig and Baumbach is an undeniably intoxicating one. The pair’s writing manages to hit several poignant notes surrounding dream-chasing, not fitting in, and struggling to find a purpose in life – familiar themes to anyone aware of Baumbach’s back catalogue. With this also comes some pitch-perfect moments of comedy, gleefully self-absorbed characters, and a setting which serves as another love letter to New York.

Like most of Baumbach’s work, the joy of Mistress America comes through its amusing palette of characters. Gerwig plays against type as the New York City social queen who wants to have her finger in every pie – yet struggles to see these dreams through. Brooke is like an Andy Warhol character – throwing out loose superficial statements in fast bouts of self-absorbed inanity. Characters rarely respond to other’s dialogue – with each on their own mental path, yet despite this the sense of connection in Mistress America feels very much alive. The narrative’s gradual building of Tracy and Brooke’s sisterly relationship is utterly warming – especially in seeing Tracy go from an isolated loner to a confident young woman thanks to her future step-sister’s influence. A breakthrough performance from Lola Kirk adds an authentic voice to Mistress America capturing the challenging crossroads between university life and adulthood .

There is something enjoyably nostalgic about Mistress America as it builds up to its frenzied screwball conclusion where all the film’s various subplots come to a head. As relationships break down, old ones rekindle, and home truths are told there is a chaotic panic and madcap, laugh-filled tone to savour. In doing this some of the poignancy of the earlier themes feels somewhat cheapened and the message of Baumbach’s film feels less clear than that of his prior works.

Mistress America is a charming addition to both Gerwig and Baumbach’s CVs. Riotously amusing and energetically performed, it is a pleasure to watch despite never feeling quite as important as Frances Ha!


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