As someone who hasn’t watched as much Noah Baumbach as I probably should have, Mistress America is probably as good a place to start if one of your first experiences of his work was the recent Marriage Story.
That movie really captured the mind and hearts of many viewers, not least in inspiring so many memes, particularly with its now famous argument sequence between its two lead characters and having a large, ready made audience available to it by being released on to Netflix.
There’s something about Mistress America that feels almost recognisable Baumbach on the basis of this being my second viewing of one of his movies and yet I also get the impression that there might be some differences to what his usual brand of indie-inflected cinema brings to the table.
It begins with a brilliant synth score that gives the film a very 1980’s feel, and which makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon some lost film from the era. Marriage Story was awash with Randy Newman’s whimsical score, that the use of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips on synth sounds wonderful, which says something since we’re in an era when 80s-style synths soundtracks are in everything.
If you were to look up American Independent Cinema in a dictionary, Mistress America feels very much like the type of film that would have its poster there. It looks as if it was shot on film, although from what I’ve read, DP Sam Levy shot the film digitally and made it look like film (something he also done on Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird), and it looks gorgeous.
It has a tangible, grainy look to it that looks genuine in terms of celluloid and its use of New York locations and Gerwig’s performance and scenes in college dorm rooms make it feel like it’s checking off the tick marks of an indie.
That’s not to knock it, it’s the type of film I love when done well and Mistress America is done well. While Baumbach’s work is a spot in my movie watching that has become a blind one, his wife’s work has become a firm favourite; Lady Bird and Little Women are something approaching modern classics, the former being one of the best coming of age films in recent times (and a testament to how brilliant modern day teen movies are) while the latter is a film that didn’t need to be made again and yet you were very thankful exists because it was so perfect.
Mistress America feels like it could take place in the same sphere of Lady Bird. Gerwig co-writing the script gives the female relationship at the heart of the film a real drive that might have been lacking if it was just written by a man, with Gerwig’s performance as Brooke being both entertaining, and equal parts charming and egotistical in a way that threatens to dip into the realm of unlikable and yet the writing keeps a tight hold.
Same goes for Lola Kirke’s performance as Tracy. She has an aloofness that in lesser hands could have made her unlikable and yet her drive to find herself and enjoy her new friendship with Brooke means she stays the right side of sympathetic even when some of her behaviour isn’t the best, while the film suggests that finding direction for one’s life can be a constant thing and that even when you go futher into adulthood, finding your path or who you are isn’t necessarily something that’s going to just come to you.
The first half of the film is an enjoyable tale of friendship discovered, and yet it takes a turn into something approaching more of a screwball comedy in the second with most of the action centred on a trip to Connecticut and Brooke attempting to procure money from an ex-boyfriend for her restaurant business, and the fall out of Tracy’s depiction of Brooke in her short story that she has written.
The film falls into the realm of witty upper class characters talking fast, in cross purposes with about three other plots going on around it and it’s all great fun, although it might prove to be the point that anyone not on board with the film up to this point might jump ship. There’s a danger of it becoming another film entirely, albeit one populated by the characters we’ve been watching up to that point, but it works.
Coming in at ninety minutes, a rare thing nowadays, the film is fast and witty and never outstays its welcome and best of all, it’s probably enough to make me want to continue down the Baumbach rabbit hole.
Mistress America is available to watch on Netflix in the UK and to rent on Amazon Video in the US.