Mistress America

Movie Information

The Story: An awkward college freshman meets her impending 30-year-old step-sister, and nothing will ever be the same. The Lowdown: Fast, funny, appealing, perfectly judged — a comedy and more — this may be Noah Baumbach's best film and it puts him in the running for having two of 2015's best films. Co-writer star Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke are a dream pairing. A must-see.
Genre: Comedy
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Cindy Cheung, Dean Wareham
Rated: R



Back when Greta Gerwig was doing publicity for Frances Ha (2013), she dropped a couple of very vague hints to me about what she and Noah Baumbach were writing for their next collaboration. The most telling remark was that the next film would be nothing like Frances Ha — and Ms. Gerwig did not lie. Mistress America — though evidencing the same sensibility and a Hot Chocolate song on the soundtrack — isn’t like Frances Ha. It is, however, just as wonderful — maybe even better. It is also probably more accessible to a broader audience, since Mistress America not only boasts something of the feel and speed of a classic screwball comedy, it’s also the most classically formal of Baumbach’s films.




There’s a hint of Woody Allen to it — and something of Whit Stillman (the trip to Greenwich, Connecticut, bears a striking similarity to the trip to Long Island in Stillman’s 1990 debut film, Metropolitan). None of this is to say that Mistress America is derivative. Everything has the distinctive tone of both Baumbach and co-writer star Gerwig. Its formalism is strictly technical. And its screwball-comedy sensibility hides depths of sadness and insecurities. Oh, it’s funny. It is almost certainly Baumbach’s funniest film — and it’s in the running for 2015’s funniest, too — but it’s more than that.




Gerwig plays Brooke, a 30-year-old New Yorker and would-be entrepreneur — assuming she can ever settle on a single scheme and get the financing. She’s the logical descendant of a 1930s Carole Lombard character, but in strictly modern terms. She suffers — or maybe enjoys — a similar fuzzy-minded naïveté, but differs in other regards. We meet her through Tracy (Lola Kirke), an awkward 18-year-old college girl with literary ambitions, whose mother (Kathryn Erbe) is set to marry Brooke’s father. In a funk over feeling out of place at college and having been rejected by the school’s prestigious (and snobbish) literary society, Tracy is prompted to take her mother’s advice to call Brooke. This somewhat tenuous status of future-step-sister is good enough for Brooke, who seems to be perfectly happy to have a new audience. Tracy, for her part, is not only fascinated by the more worldly Brooke, but recognizes that her new friend and soon-to-be quasi-relative is terrific material for a story.




This all comes to a head when Brooke’s screwy plan for a combination hair salon, art gallery, restaurant and a gathering place for other hip and creative people (like herself, of course) comes crashing down when Brooke’s never-seen boyfriend/backer pulls out. Since this leaves Brooke deeply in debt, she and Tracy hatch a plan to get the money from Brooke’s rich ex-boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) and her former best friend Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). The question of how to get from New York to Greenwich is settled by enlisting Tracy’s only college friend — and near-miss boyfriend — Tony (Michael Shear) to drive them, though this means Tony’s insanely possessive girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones) will have to tag along (and in a state of almost terrifying sullenness).




This sets the stage for the film’s most concentrated comic set-piece with Brooke and her entourage and Mamie-Claire and Dylan — along with a pregnant book-club member (Cindy Cheung) waiting for her husband to pick her up, and an unfriendly neighbor (Dean Wareham) — engaging in rapid-fire dialogue and recriminations, and the revelation that Tracy has written a story about Brooke. It’s very funny and played like perfect farce, but it stings at the same time — and marks the shift toward the film’s more serious final stretch. Don’t misunderstand. The film never becomes depressing, and this is by no means the usual “penultimate reel of gloom,” but it does take a necessary turn that provides the story with a perfect ending.




Mistress America clocks in at a breathless 84 minutes and it wastes none of them, which is in itself a delight in a time when all too many movies drag on for more than two hours to no good point. It is a marvel of a little movie, one of the best I’ve seen this year, and it is without a doubt the best thing you will see in theaters this week — and probably for the next few weeks. Rated R for language including some sexual references.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas and Fine Arts Theatre.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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29 thoughts on “Mistress America

  1. Me

    Didn’t I call it? I knew this would be better than While We’re Young. Does Dean Wareham finally have a bigger part in a Baumbach film? His score for this movie is pretty great.

    • Ken Hanke

      Comparing the two films is almost impossible. And I don’t know if you called it, or if you reported what you heard. I don’t know if Mr. Wareham has a bigger role here, but it’s a showier one. I say that because I don’t specifically remember him in the other movies.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      I like Mistress America a lot, but prefer While We’re Young.

      • Ken Hanke

        That far I can’t go. At least at this point, since part of my feelings stem from While We’re Young not really sticking with me like it should.

          • Ken Hanke

            But something keeps me from being anxious to undertake that second viewing.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            Last weekend’s deluge of reviews, perhaps?

          • Ken Hanke

            No, the hesitance predates that. Might be the Ben Stiller factor creeping in.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I have, however, contracted your Will Smith-itis.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            Booster shots stop working after a while.

    • Big Al

      I went to see “Mistress America” spur-of-the-moment, unlike “While We Are Young” which I went to see deliberately. “Mistress America” was as much of a pleasant surprise as “While We Are Young” was a disappointment.

  2. RaleighRon

    Saw this tonight in Raleigh. I’m glad you suggested it, as I laughed and cringed on cue, and thought the two leads were terrific, and the supporting characters were all insightfully drawn. Only perhaps a dozen other people at the theater, though. It didn’t help that today’s Raleigh News & Observer ran a review from Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer, in which he panned the film, calling Gerwig’s character “selfish, rude, deluded, irresponsible and mean-spirited” and “every other character but Tracy becomes … repugnant”. He also complained that all the adults speak at top speed. Isn’t that the essence of screwball comedy.?

    I realize comedy is subjective, but to not have any empathy toward any of these characters is kind of creepy.

    • Ken Hanke

      No, I’m sure it did not help, since this is the kind of movie where people actually pay attention to reviews. (We tend to think of ourselves as pretty powerless, but that just means we’re not going to stop anyone from seeing More Faster, More Furiouser 37 — nor am I entirely sure we should.) I’m kind of surprised that Raleigh doesn’t have its own critic(s), but given the state of newspapers today, I don’t guess I should be. Anyway, I’ve known Larry for 10 years (though I haven’t seen him in probably seven) and we have frequently not been in accord. Regardless…I’m having trouble imagining Howard Hawks telling John Barrymore and Carole Lombard that they’re talking too fast while making Twentieth Century. Also, calling Gerwig’s character mean-spirited seems to me just plain wrong.

      • Edwin Arnaudin

        The N&O never should have laid off Craig Lindsey. Thankfully he writes the occasional review for Indy Week.

      • Big Al

        “Also, calling Gerwig’s character mean-spirited seems to me just plain wrong.”

        Agree. Maybe “lacking self-awareness” would be more appropriate, and her troubles by the end of the film dash that problem with cold water. She ends up being fairly likable and worthy of sympathy. So does Tracy, who has her own problems when we meet her. I see a lot of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation in this film’s message.

  3. sally sefton

    The dialogue is so snappy and funny that I wanted to watch it again immediately to catch some of it. My favorite line will not be quoted accurately by me, but here goes. When someone tried to take a group selfie Brooke wouldn’t allow it. “we are over documenting ourselves!” What a brilliant response to this nauseating phenomena.

    There was also a great line ” Being a beacon for inferior people is a lonely job.” Again. forgive my old brain for not retaining these word for word, but they are too good not to repeat.

    • Ken Hanke

      The film is full of great lines — too many to take in or remember accurately in one sitting. Not sure I’d blame the age of your brain.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      I caught the Projectors one. Neat that Nat got mentioned by name. I got to interview him last year when he came through town on his solo tour – he’s a pleasant fellow and a good conversationalist.

        • Ken Hanke

          Well, this didn’t set the world on fire here. (It seems — Clapton knows why — that an obscene number of people instead went to A Walk in the Woods instead.) At least it did well enough (hey, it was $400 above the national average) to buy it a second full week at The Carolina and a split schedule at the Fine Arts. Unless word of mouth kicks in big time, I would not expect a third week.

          • Ben

            I’m glad it stuck around, since I was too busy to catch it last week and I think it might be my favorite movie this year.

            For what it’s worth there were maybe 12-18 people at the Carolina last night when I went to see it, which seemed like a solid turnout for a Wednesday evening.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I am sorry to say that come Friday, this will gone. It deserved more support than it got.

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