Mistress America

Scott Wallace
25th Oct 2015

After a quick detour into sincere and mature comedy-drama with the Ben Stiller-starring While We’re Young, Mistress America reunites American director Noah Baumbach with his muse Greta Gerwig. The pair co-wrote the remarkable 2012 film Frances Ha, and Mistress America (also co-written with Gerwig) is a similarly charming and refreshing slice of comedy.

Immediately we are introduced to college freshman Tracy, whose shyness and academic ambition is perfectly captured by Lola Kirke. Struggling to make friends on campus and rejected by the highly competitive literary society, Tracy turns to her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Gerwig). Brooke – a singer in a band with an entrepreneurial spirit - immediately sparks Tracy’s passion for life and the two become close straight away.

Mistress America is a sort-of comedy of manners in the screwball mode like classics such as It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby. Characters are over-the-top, but not cartoonish, and out of all the madness emerges some real pathos. Even at the film’s emotional peak, the laughs still come hard and fast. It’s a fine character study of two women – one of whom is too determined, and the other lacking in resolve and follow-through. Like the screwball classics that it recalls, this film is a love story, but rather than romance, it is about a burgeoning familial connection between its two central characters.

Greta Gerwig is absolutely marvellous as Brooke. She is a deeply flawed and sometimes unlikable character, but we still root for her because Gerwig instils her with so much sincerity and joy. The rest of the cast is excellent, particularly the aforementioned Lola Kirke who seems to grow along with Tracy throughout the film, and the icy Heather Lind as Brooke’s nemesis Mamie-Claire.

This film is populated with hilarious characters. Even Karen, a throwaway who is only present because her husband is late picking her up, or Tracy’s grumpy roommate Ruth, get some of the best lines. The energy can be manic, with scenes full of competing personalities and criss-crossing conversations, but the film still maintains an easy and comfortable flow.

The film’s original score from Dean Wareham (formerly of late 80s indie rockers Galaxie 5000) and his wife and musical collaborator Britta Phillips is full of 80s influences like squiggly synths and drum machines, but still sounds autumnal and lush. Along with the gorgeous and warm cinematography from Sam Levy, the music creates an immediate pull and emotional connection without seeming precious or contrived.

Mistress America is slight in story, but stuffed to the brim with character. It’s an imaginative and original take on the tropes of contemporary indie cinema, and all the more charming for it. It’s about time that we had a woman-centred comedy that was this sharp, honest and flat-out hilarious.

Mistress America opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday October 29.