by Elizabeth Stoddard
Mistress America opens today in Austin at the Violet Crown Cinema, Regal Arbor at Great Hills and Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.
Mistress America is like something from a past era, when characters spoke in quick patter and bon mots, a large number of people crammed into a scene made it more preposterously hilarious, and gals had gumption. Co-written by actress Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach, the script tosses out witty lines like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
College freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke, Gone Girl) starts her first year at Barnard feeling friendless and unnoticed. Her engaged mother (played by Kathryn Erbe, Law & Order: Criminal Intent) suggests she get in touch with her stepsister-to-be Brooke (Gerwig). They meet and aspiring writer Tracy is fascinated with the older woman and her seemingly fabulous life.
It’s easy to relate to Tracy’s adoration for Brooke, a flighty 30-year-old who holds multiple jobs to get by, lives in a commercial-zoned property and yet is convinced of her own potential. Brooke is like an upper-middle-class version of Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn’s character in The Philadelphia Story). Men (and Kirke’s Tracy) want to put her on a pedestal, and like Ms. Lord, Brooke is an endearingly flawed character. Unlike the 1940 character, Brooke won’t settle for a monied man … although the money would be nice.
This last factor is quite notable. In contrast to the screwball comedies Mistress America fashions itself after, this new comedy has no romance between the main characters. The central relationship is between the two not-quite stepsisters, who grow a friendship despite themselves. Kirke’s Tracy is on the outside looking in (she literally watches Brooke charm investors through a restaurant window at one point). Not only does a relationship with Brooke provide fodder for a short story, but it also gets Tracy out of her shell. Kirke and Gerwig play well off each other, their banter flying like speech in a show by Amy Sherman-Palladino. After the screening, my friend commented that she thought this film might not pass a reverse Bechdel test — we couldn’t think of a scene where two males talk to each other about something other than the women. That’s certainly unique.
Mistress America might be the least Baumbach-y film the director has made yet. There is no scene of slow awkward humiliation — there are uncomfortable moments for these characters, but the pacing is such that they pass quickly. This film considers issues of trust and betrayal, conformity, and sisterhood while never taking itself too seriously. As a fan of classic screwball film, I find the female-centric Mistress America a welcome addition and twist on the genre.