Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America takes place on the isle of solitude otherwise known as New York City. Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke), a freshman English student at Barnard College, finds herself alone on this island. Her manageable discontents amass as the packaged college experience, the commercialized commodity that’s bought and sold to students who look to higher education as an outlet of jejune debauchery and facile self-discovery, proves to be less fulfilling than she hopes. Struggling to come to terms with her loneliness - she’s rebuffed by the first boy to afford her attention (Matthew Shear) and the university’s supercilious literary journal - Tracy is in need of both a muse and a friend. Baumbach’s second film this year is not just superior to While We’re Young (where his preoccupations with cutthroat ambition and false idoltry within a digital age are as prescient and poignant as they’ve ever been) but may very well be Baumbach’s best film.
Tracy is a fascinating character in Baumbach’s canon, aligning herself with the likes of Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Squid and the Whale, Roger (Ben Stiller) in Greenberg, and Frances (Greta Gerwig) in Frances Ha as an ambitious blank slate looking for a degree of authenticity and validation within her craft. Incapable of narrativizing herself in large part because her life story would read as a void of inexperience, she looks to her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig) as both a companion and as a reservoir for material. The two meet in Time Square where they course through the metropolis with uninhibited verve, Tracy relishing in Brooke’s authoritative handling of situations, misinterpreting her experience for sophistication. It’s a whirlwind sequence that exposes Brooke’s hapless efforts toward stability while illuminating Tracy’s passions. The night ends and the following morning Tracy immediately commits their experience into a work of fiction, where the act of writing becomes a form of problem solving. Tracy submits the work to the literary magazine.
This act surfaces as one of the film’s covert ethical questions about the vicarious nature in which people – both writers and readers – experience life as a story. Baumbach illustrated this point with broader comic flourishes in While We’re Young, where authenticity is in doubt when a work is considered pastiche (a character, later in the film, would go on to dismiss Tracy’s appropriation of events as such). In Mistress America, the Grand Question that Baumbach and Gerwig suggest is that a work of genuine artistry is lost in an era where everything is shared at a moments notice. Success is defined by who gets there first and Brooke embodies its mirrored failure. Having a t-shirt idea that would spawn a small fortune, it was Brooke’s friend that reaped the rewards of that idea. Thirty and struggling to obtain financing for a potpourri restaurant-cum-barbershop, it’s Brooke’s lack of follow through that Tracy, perhaps subconsciously, exploits for her literary ambitions. If Tracy was alone on her island then fiction was her way out, Brooke the collateral damage of that escape.
Greta Gerwig’s writing contributions undoubtedly soften the blow. Baumbach has never quite reached the heights of bellicose deprecation as he did in Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, and in Mistress America you see a tangible playfulness in Baumbach and Gerwig’s screenplay and his direction. When the film moves from New York City to Connecticut, you’ll see Baumbach at his most spry. As Brooke attempts to court old friends to invest in her restaurant, Baumbach’s exuberant direction calls upon Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday by way of Edgar Wright. From the swiftness of Baumbach following characters down long corridors to how he keeps the integrity of the frame intact even as characters move in and out of the foreground and background is the kind of thing that comes with decades of experience. The staging and blocking becomes symphonic at points, everything orchestrated for maximum comic effect. It’s a stark departure that’s both a welcome reprieve from the darker elements found earlier in the film while simultaneously maintaining a tone of twitchy anxiety. It’s akin to the shaman-led drug trip-cum-vomit episode of While We’re Young only much more successful.
As Baumbach’s career has now spanned three decades, there’s an unmistakable clarity to his work that comes from experience and the confidence that it spawns. He’s limber in his movements yet clearly has the foresight to deviate from the well-worn path. Take a sequence early in the film where an old high school acquaintance accosts Brooke in a NYC bar. The scene is written as an awkward moment that highlights Brooke’s naïve and oblivious aggressive streak. It reads as a painful and tragic condemnation of Brooke’s worldview. Yet Baumbach utilizes this moment as a precursor for larger things to come, instead opting to cut through the tension through his use of rapid edits – the intensity of the argument comes across as juvenile, especially as Lola Kirke plays spectator, with Baumbach shifting the two-prong argument to include cuts to Kirke as she scarfs down a hot dog. Taking the tragic and making it comic has been one of Baumbach’s finest qualities and in Mistress America it’s the effortlessness in which he employs these simple but sophisticated tactics that has generated one of the best American films in years.