In the New York City of Noah Baumbach’s last three films, social discourse has devolved into a series of economic transactions. His characters frame their lives around events that are about to happen, seeking both to will and hype their dreams into reality. They have no identity, let alone any happiness, without achievements to point toward. In Frances Ha, the title character’s addle-minded striving seems all the more futile when her roommate, a trust-fund hipster with supposed connections, works on a Saturday Night Live script that amounts to nothing. While We’re Young finds characters of disparate ages thieving styles, co-workers, and ideas from one another, but their most bitter fights involve access to influence.
Like its predecessor, Mistress America introduces characters at polar ends of young adulthood who are feverishly driven to make a name for themselves. Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is an 18-year-old freshman at Barnard. The school isn’t quite Columbia, but its superstars are the members of a suitcase-toting literary journal, who indoctrinate new inductees with a frat-like hazing ritual. Tracy befriends another aspiring writer (Matthew Shear), but when he takes on a girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones), she seeks out her future stepsister, Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig). Brooke, just past 30, introduces Tracy to both a city of myth and a constellation of unfulfilled dreams and nasty grudges: Brooke gets on stage with the Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth; talks up her finance-guy boyfriend, Stavros; presents ideas for a restaurant and a TV show “that will be its own mythology”; and gripes about a nemesis, Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), who stole her boyfriend, her cats, and a T-shirt design that was subsequently sold to J. Crew.
Mistress America is both the most concentrated and antic film in Baumbach’s unofficial New York trilogy. Ambition, alternately rudderless and intensely focused, chokes his characters into a desperation that clouds their identity. Tracy and Brooke develop a relationship that’s at once symbiotic and toxic. Drunk on Brooke’s whirlwind of ambition and barbed vanity, Tracy uses her new sister’s personality to create a short story. This self-serious treatment of a generation’s travails gains her entree into the lit society, but Tracy continues to lurk around Brooke’s orbit, ultimately coaxing her into a trip to Mamie Claire’s mansion in Greenwich. Baumbach and co-writer Gerwig transform Connecticut into a bilious version of the “green world” Stanley Cavell refers to in his book on the Hollywood “comedies of remarriage.” For a while, Mistress America is a study of how to ingratiate yourself with people just as you seek to exploit them.
In Greenwich, the film becomes a millennial drawing-room farce: ideals are compromised and personas are punctured; everything, even achievement and aspiration, stinks of bullshit. The visit, though constrained to one house, expands the film’s cast to include Mamie Claire, a pregnant woman (Cindy Cheung) waiting for a ride, a studly and suspicious neighbor (Low’s Dean Wareham, who made the film’s synth-pop score with Britta Phillips), and Brooke’s ex, Dylan (Michael Chernus), who shrewdly wields his Goldman Sachs salary even as he plays the nice rich guy. Just as the film probes deeper into its protagonists’ psyches, its comedy broadens considerably (and to wavering impact). It’s a tricky balancing act the script doesn’t quite land, but Baumbach handles it extremely well, every cut and block amplifying a moment of verbal or physical comedy.
Unlike While We’re Young, which fashioned its characters as though they were collections of generational signposts, Mistress America treats self-construction like an ongoing, deeply internalized turf war. Gerwig’s Brooke plays, in some ways, like a steely sequel to her earlier Frances, just as this film feels like a more bitter and sophisticated sequel to Frances Ha. Her desire to be infectious is transparent, and is hindered by the constricting wardrobe of a serious woman on the move. Kirke’s Tracy, meanwhile, is eager to express wonder, but refuses to accept that she might be naïve. Any threat to her integrity is met by an ugly, unconvincing deferral to the artist’s prerogative to use their life as material.
The actresses work astonishingly well as a duo, making sure to betray a sweetness and an earnestness the film’s dense script doesn’t leave much space for. Their conversations become strange little chess matches, one talking past the other just as they’re calibrating quips and confessions for maximum impact. If the action of the film surveys how they, in parallel, fall out of love with New York City, Mistress America is more poignantly concerned with how Brooke and Tracy fall out of love with themselves. “You’re funny because you don’t know you’re funny,” one character tells Brooke. “I know I’m funny,” she replies, a little sadly. “I know everything about myself.”