I’m not often able to assert the following right after seeing a new movie: I have a clear favorite scene in Mistress America. Tracy (Lola Kirke), a young woman in her first semester of college, has just been charged by her new friend and anticipated step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), with picking up some pasta for dinner. Alone in the grocery store, Tracy is flummoxed by the array of options before her, both in trying to determine which brand is fancy enough to impress her older, more worldly companion and simply which damn shape she should opt for. Maybe the ones that look like bow ties? She even needs to resort to her cellphone, calling around for long distance assistance. In a single scene, conveyed with impeccable timing, director Noah Baumbach perfectly conveys a certain slice of the long haul of growing up, when a nonchalantly bestowed chore seems as daunting and foreign as performing neurosurgery without any medical training.
Like the wondrous Frances Ha, Baumbach’s new film is a collaboration with Gerwig, who collaborated on scripting duties before claiming a leading role. As before, Gerwig softens Baumbach’s acerbic judgment, preserving the threads of satire, but making a keen empathy the prevailing tone of the work. Gerwig’s Brooke is a young woman struggling to find her footing as the easily forgiven recklessness of youth gives way to the expectations of stability the come with adulthood — a role that is plainly a Gerwig specialty — but the film’s view is that this is normal stage in modern development, not some dreadful existential mistake. This time out, though, it’s the younger character who’s the real heart of the film, and Kirke responds with a thoroughly winning and largely unique performance, portraying social awkwardness as not some tarnished badge of honor, but simply as a state of being. Tracy is who she is, infused with charm, need, self-doubt, and smarts that she doesn’t quite yet know how to channel. She’s a unique protagonist and endlessly fascinating.
The film is basically two halves: a slice of youthful New York life that shifts into a sort of relaxed farce around the midway point, with Brooke and Tracy (with two of Tracy’s schoolmates, played by Matthew Shear and Jasmine Cephas Jones) traveling to an upscale home to secure funding for Brooke’s planned restaurant project. It’s less of a whirlwind than a little eddy that picks up and tosses around a few crispy leaves along a park pathway, but it’s consistently funny, more clearly comedic than anything Baumbach has made since his debut twenty years ago with Kicking and Screaming. If the two pieces don’t fit together cleanly, that fractiousness is ultimately part of the film’s appeal. The slightly stilted quality that sometimes rings false in the first half turns into precisely the right tenor in the second, and the smartly observational pieces from early on give the later gag-heavy material greater depth than it would have otherwise. Mistress America can feel like a freewheeling experiment, with Baumbach and Gerwig trying out whatever strikes their shared fancy at any given moment. Thankfully, it’s an experiment that mostly yields worthy results.