In 2013, Noah Baumbach, quite arguably the greatest director of independent comedies working today, teamed up with his girlfriend and fellow independent film veteran Greta Gerwig for Frances Ha, a film that reminded us that independent cinema is a truly unique art form, and one of the most tricky but rewards sub-genres of cinema to get right. Two years later, it seems that the duo have done it again, and made a wonderfully light and compellingly hilarious comedy that is brimming with quirky characters, wonderful dialogue and a great story. While Mistress America may not be as good as Baumbach’s previous films, namely The Squid and the Whale and the aforementioned Frances Ha, it is certainly a fantastic film.
Frances Ha had Greta Gerwig playing the hilarious and idiosyncratic title character. Mistress America finds her again in that position, this time in a slightly more ambiguous way. This time, however, she is not a sole lead, but rather a co-lead, as she shares this film with Lola Kirke, a performer I will talk more about later on in this review. Gerwig has such natural charm, but she takes her performance and her general career to the next level by not only being the idiosyncratic, quirky actress that performs in front of the cameras, but rather also uses her talents to bring this material into existence, acting as a co-writer of this film. One could argue that with this film (and with Frances Ha, which she also wrote), her performance might seem confident and fitting because instead of creating her own interpretation or connecting with the material, she herself is creating the material. In this regard, Frances Ha felt like an elaborate one-woman show set to film. Mistress America, however, shows Gerwig’s ability to not only write great material for herself, but to also create complex characters and situations for other performers, which I do believe requires an extended amount of kudos, because Gerwig and Baumbach worked in tandem to create a great ensemble, which Gerwig and Kirke lead effortlessly.
Independent cinema allows for those who are tired of action and special effects to retreat to a haven where character development and story progression is of utmost importance. With a sub-genre as brutally honest as independent cinema, the performers who choose to lend their talents to the films always face scrutiny, so it is sometimes essential that the right choices are made to ensure that the material is not overcast by an ill-fitting performance. So far, Noah Baumbach has not once disappointed me with his choices for performers, and Mistress America is not an exception in any way. Of course, we were all expecting a fantastic performance from seasoned indie veteran Greta Gerwig. However, Baumbach did put everything on the line when casting the other main character, arguably the biggest lead of the film. He went with Lola Kirke, a name I am very sure many people are not aware of. Unfortunately, I have to partake in that ridiculous tradition of claiming to know an obscure performer before their big breakout, but in this case, I am absolutely justified, because it is true. Lola Kirke is not an obscure actress in my eyes, mainly because she absolutely stole the show last year in the fantastic and sadly under-seen musical comedy television show, Mozart in the Jungle, which was an absolute riot of a film, and I knew it was only a matter of time before she broke out as a truly talented actress (a small performance in Gone Girl last year might not have done much to boost her image, but it certainly looks very good on her resume). Very rarely does one see a truly captivating lead performance in a film like this. Kirke was absolutely stellar as Tracy, the shy but fiercely intelligent young woman who falls into the life of the unpredictable Brooke (played by Gerwig). I know that most people will fall for the quirky and outrageous hilarity that Gerwig brings to the film, but I found myself admiring Kirke’s natural and confident performance here, because when your co-star is delightfully over the top, it is wonderful to see such a restrained, but still very funny and absolutely endearing performance to counter-act the overly quirky film. It almost feels like that one minor character in every Wes Anderson film that seems to be the only sane person in the film that acts as the voice of reason of sorts. A special mention must be given to Heather Lind, as the gloriously uptight Mamie-Claire, who threatens to steal the film several times.
Mistress America is an intelligent film above all else, but not in the way that it could be seen as being polarizing or complex. It is as simple as any comedy, but it has a rare kind of subtle humour that makes this film one of the most delightful comedies of the year. Mistress America is not the first film to contain subtle humour, as it is a popular trick for many comedic filmmakers. However, Mistress America is wonderful in the way that Baumbach and Gerwig never seek to explain the jokes. In a way, this might cause a great deal of the humour to flow over the heads of a large portion of the audience, but for those that understand some of the jokes, Mistress America is absolutely delightful and will have you in stitches. That isn’t to imply that this film is aimed at some elite group that understand the humor, rather it is a film that uses the English language and its complexities to add some very subtle humor to the story, and for those who understand the jokes, it will definitely be a great surprise, and for those who don’t, once they look up the meaning of some of the jokes, it will still be delightfully funny. Mistress America doesn’t seek to explain its jokes, and that is exactly the way a film should be.
Mistress America is such a delightful film. It embodies exactly what an independent film should be. It completely deconstructs the ridiculous cliches mainstream comedies have built up. The story arc is completely unpredictable, the characters are unique creations and not simply pale imitations of pre-existing characters, even though many detractors might tell you otherwise (and I do consider myself somewhat an authority on indepdent comedies of this nature). This film goes in unexpected directions throughout, and even when it threatens to veer towards territory of the taut and cliched, it proves that it is only teasing us, and that is is well aware that there exists a canon of comedy, and that it is definitely an addition that cannot truly be considered similar to any other. A few examples of this include the romantic subplot – in all films similar in story, there seems to be the mantra of “love conquers all, but only after an argument and break-up scene” – there is a romantic element to this film, but it isn’t even the main sub-plot, and is used only as a device to move the main story forward, rather than being the driving force of the film. There is a break-up scene of sorts (but an unconventional one), and in a way, this is played for laughs rather than for central tension. Another example is that the characters in this film have very few problems that require empathy or sympathy from the audience – they aren’t necessarily poor or heartbroken, and they don’t really have any redeeming personality traits. However, they are purely human – selfish, insecure and paranoid. However, they are also sensitive, honest and fascinating. Mistress America contains some of the most wonderful character development throughout the canon of independent comedies, which is a wonderful surprise.
I will be perfectly honest – I was not expecting to like Mistress America. It just seemed like another retread of the romantic indie comedy, where two young women go through life, which could be quite a daunting and redundant subject. However, I was absolutely delighted to see this film be a powerfully funny and wonderfully unique film about friendship and the plight of being young in the modern world. There are some scathing indictments on our society throughout this film, which is magnificent, because if there is one aspect of independent cinema that I adore, it is that the filmmakers have free-reign to tell it like it is, and while many do not take this opportunity, Noah Baumbach certainly does, and the script that he and Gerwig create is unique, funny and probably the best of the year, to be perfectly honest.
Mistress America is a wonderfully unique film, but I keep using that to describe it. However, it is absolutely true. It is certainly one of the best films of the year, lead by a pair of spectacular performances from Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke. Smart, funny and sensible, it is everything that a great independent film should be – not too serious, but honest and revealing of the human condition. It is a splendid film that I absolutely adored, and I am certain that I will be revisiting it from time to time, because it is truly a great film, and one accessible to anybody, because it is funny enough for everyone to laugh, but not quirky enough that it will put people off. It is a fantastic film, and it reaffirms my belief that Noah Baumbach is one of the best directors working today. Now I eagerly await Lola Kirke getting her first big role in a mainstream film – she definitely has the talents for it, as does everyone in this fantastic film.