Mistress America is a masterpiece that's easy to adore. Its surface level pleasures- perfect comedic timing, lovable characters, and screwball dialogue, among other things- deserve just as much admiration as its deftly handled deeper themes. This movie is a fireball of wit and critique, and although I wish it had a longer burn time, it's far too close to perfect to not spend time with.
The film opens with circumstances that are excruciatingly identifiable: a young student just starting university, overwhelmed by the daunting number of options now open to her but feeling restricted by the equally terrifying number of peers finding more immediate success than her. Within weeks of starting university, Tracy feels rejected by academia, a romantic interest, and most social circles- and left out of her own future aspirations. It is at the nadir of her hopelessness that she meets her soon-to-be half-sister Brooke, a swirling exemplification of all that is exciting about American youth. With New York as their sparkling backdrop, they set off on a series of hilarious misadventures, Tracy looking to learn from Brooke and Brooke looking to learn from herself.
This narrative sounds entertaining in and of itself (and oh it is), but it would be a disservice to Baumbach and Gerwig's screenplay to ignore the complex themes that Mistress America playfully tackles and skews at every turn. What elevates movies from greatness to excellence is often thematic consistency: that is, whether or not the movie is trying to express its main point throughout every moment of its story. Mistress America does.
At its heart, Mistress America is an exploration of three kinds of American youths- those who are driven and passionate, those who are financially successful, and those who respect and value other human beings- and why it is so rare for a young adult in America to be all three. At no point does the film lose sight of this journey. It at all times critiques individual people and the American system as it looks for answers to the problems surrounding young adults who are trying to achieve their dreams in America.
And it is FUN. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have demonstrated with their previous collaboration (Frances Ha, another comedic insight into the life of confused, young friends) that they are unmatchable forces for hilarity. Their mastery of comedy extends from witty one-liners to hilarious conversations to setpieces intricately crafted for maximum humor. Mistress America is stock full of the first two: there were few points during the movie that characters were talking and I was not laughing hard. The last third of the movie is set almost entirely in one character's house, and it's written, shot, and acted with some of the most impeccable comedic timing I've experienced in film. During the setpiece, the movie stays true to its main theme by analyzing a confrontation between Brooke (who is driven and passionate, but only cares for people on a shallow level) and a former friend of hers (who is financially successful, but is lazy and does not care for others at all). Amidst the dissection of this confrontation, countless characters enter the house for a ridiculous variety of reasons, and the resulting insanity is as hysterical as it is thoughtful. This balance is perhaps Mistress America's most impressive success.
Greta Gerwig's talent reaches far beyond the movie's screenplay, of course. Her performance as Brooke is fiercely pointed and fantastic. Her endless energy and commitment to character should've made her a Hollywood star by now, but as it stands, she's a little known treasure that I'm perfectly glad to have spicing up indie films with her singular flair. Lola Kirke gives a restrained performance that matches Gerwig's in a very different way: it's easy to empathize with Tracy because of how genuinely Kirke plays the character. You get the sense that the actress knows Tracy's situation well.
Mistress America is so close to being a perfect film that its one small flaw saddens me all the more. It simply isn't long enough. This itself isn't a problem, but the way the movie is constructed- multiple essential insights wrapped in an onslaught of fun- does not favor a short runtime that forces these great aspects to feel crammed. It's far too easy to miss much of what the film has to offer because it rushes by so quickly, especially for inattentive viewers. It's a forgivable misstep, however, when what Mistress America has to offer is so uproariously funny and bathed in excellence.