Dir: Noah Baumbach. US. 2014. 84mins

Mistress America

Filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s recent streak of warmer, breezier comedies continues with Mistress America, a thoroughly delightful bauble about female friendship and the double-edged sword of getting to know someone who seems far cooler than you. Lacking the lacerating dark laughs that marked Baumbach’s earlier efforts (The Squid And The Whale, Margot At The Wedding), this latest collaboration with star and co-writer Greta Gerwig radiates indomitable wit. And Gerwig is a hoot as a woman whose unflappable, unearned confidence lands somewhere between inspiring and horrifying. 

Gerwig has played plenty of dorky, adorable young women, so her turn as Brooke is especially rewarding because of the way it twists her familiar onscreen persona.

Fox Searchlight will be releasing the film after its Sundance debut, no doubt marketing the movie around art-house audiences’ familiarity with Baumbach and Gerwig. One of two Baumbach films opening in 2015 — While We’re Young will come out through A24 in the States in late March — Mistress America will garner strong critical notice and word of mouth, cultivating solid specialty-market grosses along the way. 

The film stars Lola Kirke as Tracy, a New York college freshman trying to adjust to university life. Feeling unpopular and unable to gain acceptance into a prestigious campus literary publication, this aspiring writer reaches out to Brooke (Gerwig), a late-twentysomething Manhattanite she’s never met who will soon be her stepsister. (Tracy’s mom is marrying Brooke’s dad.) Displaying all the savoir faire and assertiveness that Tracy lacks, Brooke takes Tracy under her wing, showing her a good time in the big city and encouraging Tracy to believe in herself.

As conceived by Baumbach and Gerwig, Brooke is a whirling dervish of bulldozing self-esteem, pointed opinions and entrepreneurial spirit. Excited about the prospect of starting a restaurant, she lectures the impressionable Tracy about every topic imaginable, browbeating the younger woman by virtue of her superior, cultured tone. Notably, the character Brooke most resembles is Violet, the comically haughty woman Gerwig portrayed in Damsels In Distress. And in fact, Mistress America shares similarities with Whit Stillman’s body of work, emphasizing hilariously pretentious dialogue, misplaced youthful arrogance, and hifalutin characters who seem to be cut off from the grit of real life.

In its early stretches, Mistress America is nonstop charm as Tracy and Brooke bond, Tracy becoming a de facto cheerleader for Brooke’s professional aspirations. So admiring of Brooke’s style and confidence is Tracy that she even finds fresh creative inspiration, crafting a short story that’s a lightly fictionalized account of her time with her soon-to-be big sister.

Gerwig has played plenty of dorky, adorable young women, so her turn as Brooke is especially rewarding because of the way it twists her familiar onscreen persona. On the surface, Brooke is a hilariously exhausting font of hip attitudes, and she seems to revel in the fact that Tracy so willingly takes on the role of adoring protégé. But as Mistress America rolls along, we (and Tracy) start to see the cracks in that façade, learning that Brooke’s big dreams are a dam meant to keep away the fears that she’s getting to an age where she really needs to figure out her life.

With a running time of only 84 minutes, including credits, Mistress America feels a bit like an extended short story, the bulk of the film’s pleasure coming from the clever dialogue and the precise teasing of young New York professionals with their grandiose aspirations and overinflated sense of self-importance. But Mistress America loses some of its momentum when Brooke and Tracy take a trip (alongside Tracy’s unrequited love and his insanely jealous new girlfriend) to Connecticut to confront an old friend of Brooke’s (played with impressively bitchy zeal by Heather Lind) whom she accuses of stealing her boyfriend and a lucrative T-shirt design idea. What had been an elegant, uproarious social comedy morphs into a broader farce, and while Baumbach continues to keep the zig-zagging dialogue bouncing along at a frenetic pace, the quips can become tiring, the comedic inventiveness lagging.

Still, Mistress America finds Baumbach working in a similar vein to his Frances Ha, which also starred and was co-written by Gerwig. Although Baumbach is showing more compassion to his characters of late, that doesn’t mean he’s lost his ability to X-ray his protagonists, examining the insecurities, anxieties and immaturities that keep them from finding happiness. Without making the point too obvious, Mistress America observes that Tracy and Brooke are both looking for something elusive: a belief that their dreams have value. But their friendship, no matter how nourishing, maroons them, with each dependent on the other’s approval. Subtly, that teacher-pupil dynamic shifts over the course of Mistress America, proving uncomfortable for both Brooke and Tracy. (Kirke’s role is less showy than Gerwig’s, but she’s superb at portraying Tracy’s late-blooming confidence.)

To be sure, Mistress America is mostly just a comedy about the fatuousness of self-absorbed people. But Baumbach and Gerwig ground the laughs in something elemental — about acceptance, about our career anxieties, and about those friends who mean so much to us who, nonetheless, we’ll someday probably need to outgrow.

Production company: RT Pictures

US distribution: Fox Searchlight Pictures, www.foxsearchlight.com

Producers: Noah Baumbach, Scott Rudin, Lila Yacoub, Rodrigo Teixeira, Greta Gerwig

Executive producers: Lourenço Sant’Anna, Sophie Mas

Screenplay: Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig

Cinematography: Sam Levy

Production designer: Sam Lisenco

Editor: Jennifer Lame

Music: Dean Wareham & Britta Phillips

Main cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus, Cindy Cheung, Kathryn Erbe, Dean Wareham