In the rapidly evolving millennial age, it’s good to know some life experiences are still universal, at least according to Noah Baumbach’s energetic new comedy Mistress America. It opens on the college freshman Tracy Fishko’s (Lola Kirke) first day at Barnard, and the first few minutes chart her stilted flirtation with another new student, her efforts to get accepted by the snooty literary society, and an awkward cafeteria dinner she eats alone, while pondering her lonely new adult life. Mistress America is a film about growing up, feeling in flux, and learning to take risks, but it’s also about the other side of that life arc, as Tracy befriends a 30-year-old named Brooke (Greta Gerwig) who’s crashing into the brick wall of safer, more formulaic adulthood.
Baumbach’s previous collaboration with Gerwig, Frances Ha, was a study in 20-something malaise, an energetic comedy about a young woman struggling to figure out her future without losing her enthusiasm for life. Gerwig co-wrote that film and this one, but Brooke is at best a distant cousin of Frances, a seemingly more accomplished woman about town who lives in a commercial loft, teaches spinning classes, is photographed at fancy parties, and has dreams of opening a restaurant. Her father is marrying Tracy’s mother, so Brooke happily takes the freshman under her wing and bathes in her young charge’s idolizing gaze. But Brooke’s grip on success is quickly revealed to be pretty tenuous, and despite many a witty line, Mistress America succeeds much more as a gentle and sad look at two different stages of growing up.