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.
Tracy is quiet but thoughtful, played by Kirke as outwardly seeking approval from those around her, but nursing insight beyond her years. From the minute Brooke enters her life, it’s obvious to the audience that she’s furiously trying to keep her life together, but Kirke slowly reveals how Tracy realizes this, but is still drawn to her future step-sister’s incredible verve. Brooke is a college student’s vision of cosmopolitan adulthood, buzzing from gallery openings to late-night parties, seemingly knowing everyone who’s anyone, and pursuing all kinds of exciting schemes and ventures.
But she’s also facing the truth that most people tend to grow up, and find at least a degree of stability in the process. She spends much of the first half of the film ranting about a former friend who stole both a business idea and former boyfriend from her; Mistress America’s delightful third act revolves around an impromptu trip to their Greenwich, Connecticut home, where Brooke is received as an unwelcome, if entertaining, Ghost of Christmas Past whom everyone present can compare themselves favorably to.
Baumbach’s last film, While We’re Young, was a more conventional take on similar issues, focusing on a couple in their early 40s (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) struggling to grow up as their friends settle down and have babies. With a denser plot and more sculpted punchlines, it played like a good Woody Allen movie. Mistress America is a far more energetic ride, lurching from scene to disconnected scene without too much fear of coherence, and cramming in a year’s worth of emotional development into a timeline that only spans a few weeks. It’s a more jarring experience as a result, but like Frances Ha, very much worth rolling with. The emotional throughline is what’s pivotal—though Brooke’s screwball ramblings provide the laughs, it’s her bond with Tracy (first superficial, then troublesome, but finally familial) that lingers.
Brooke may be something of a ridiculous flake, but Baumbach and Gerwig have a firm grasp on how real her connections to others are. Tracy knows that her restaurant idea is likely doomed to failure, but also realizes that Brooke needs to think otherwise just to keep propelling her way forward. It’s easy to make a comedy about flawed people, but Baumbach and Gerwig have done something harder—finding emotional truth in those flaws. The difference between a good screwball comedy and a great one is that you care about the screwballs, and in that sense, Mistress America is great indeed.