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Mistress America

April 8, 2020

Mistress America (2015)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Actors: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind

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Synopsis: Gauche 18-year-old, Tracy (Lola Kirke), finds herself idle and uninspired in New York City during her freshman year at college. She connects with her soon-to-be sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), and finds herself caught up in the whirlwind of Brooke’s life.

Review: When Noah Baumbach gets the ingredients of his zeitgeisty comedy-dramas just right (as in Greenberg and The Meyerowitz Stories) he can be a compelling and perceptive filmmaker. But much like with his over-estimated Margot at the Wedding, this film – Mistress America – highlights the fault-lines in the Baumbach methodology.

It is an unbearably affected film, and Baumbach seems to be making the mistake that many mumblecore films have perpetuated down the years. And that is, namely, that the obsession with capturing the cadences of everyday life, winds up becoming a conceited parlour game whereby all one is left with is an insincere, performative impression of so-called real life.

These affected cogs play themselves out in the film from the off. Baumbach oversells Tracy as this callow freshman with the unconvincingly dowdy jumper and the eccentric meet-cute with her would-be boyfriend before he shacks up awkwardly with someone else the next week. Then there’s one of the opening exchanges between Tracy and Brooke whereby Baumbach telegraphs what he perceives is naturalistic (non)conversation between two individuals: Tracy waxes lyrical about the arrival of a frozen yoghurt machine in her dorm building, while Brooke is mumbling away about the death of her mother and how “everyone I love dies”. I’m sorry but this isn’t true to life, rather than a scriptwriter’s mannered notion of realism. In reality, if people disconnected and spoke over each other like this all the time, you’d question their basic social functionality.

The farcical scene at the Connecticut house as Brooke’s surrogate group of stragglers accompany her on her whimsical attempt to leverage money from an ex-friend and boyfriend equally misses the spot. Baumbach pushing this scene towards some form of climactic twist is disingenuous because it’s founded on the notion that these shallow characters would be conscientious enough to take the time to read Tracy’s substantial piece of prose writing on the spot. One puzzlement is that it’s hard to believe that the Brooke previously presented to us would care that Tracy had written a slightly negative short story based on her. And there’s the problem that a Tracy who would have the intelligence and foresight to psychologically deconstruct Brooke, isn’t the same vapid, baggy jumper Tracy that Baumbach presents us with here.

The synth music score is effective in approximating the air of chaos surrounding Brooke’s life, and there are some observational truisms about age-specific anxieties, but the bogus whiff that accompanies this film is hard to shake off. (April 2020)

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