Streaming’s Hidden Treasures: Mistress America

Image: Searchlight Pictures

Streaming has changed the way we view films. It is a change that has been welcomed by many and sniffed at by others. Like it or not, however, Netflix, Amazon and the like play a huge part in being a film-lover today. These platforms have vast amounts to offer, some of which is sorely overlooked. Streaming’s Hidden Treasures aims to pick out quality, different and lesser-known cinema from across the internet, offering a guide to a variety of entertainment with ease and affordability.

Director: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Lole Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Shear

Streaming Service: Netflix

Before Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig would independently bother the 2019/20 awards season with Little Women and Marriage Story – not to mention Gerwig becoming only the second female Best Director nominee two years earlier with Lady Bird – they were a formidable creative, and romantic, pairing. First meeting when Gerwig, at this point perhaps best known for her collaborations with fellow indie Joe Swanberg, starred in Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg, the pair would go on to co-write two critically-lauded films, Frances Ha and Mistress America. In both films Gerwig would play the lead and Baumbach would direct. Frances Ha would prove a success for both filmmakers, and is still seen as one of the highlights of Gerwig’s acting career. Mistress America, then, carries lofty expectations. An odder, perhaps funnier, film than Frances Ha, it is a fast-paced and self-aware romp.

Gerwig plays Brooke, an almost-30 New Yorker living life ‘as a young woman should live’ bouncing from party to party always with the air of someone you both admire and dislike at the same time. She lives a life of aphorisms, shouting ‘must we document our lives all the time?’ at a party one minute and hopping on Twitter the next. Her interests are wide-ranging and short-lived, her life the embodiment of the impossibly multi-hyphenate young creative. Her mother is dead. This both colours our understanding of her character and introduces her to our other key figure – Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke).

Tracy is a first-year student who has just moved to New York, and finds herself decidedly out-of-place and alone. Until she meets Brooke, that is. Brooke’s widower father is marrying Tracy’s divorced mother, which brings the soon to be step-sisters together. In Brooke, Tracy finds not only a friend and a sense of purpose but, it appears, a model for how a young and free woman should behave in New York. The added complexity that makes Mistress America smarter and more enjoyable than it could be, is that mixed with Tracy’s admiration for Brooke, is a slight contempt for her. Perhaps in another film Brooke would be the popular girl that is nasty underneath the charm trope, and Tracy would be the angelic loner. Neither of these things is true, and perhaps because of this the film is, for the most part, a delight.

One of the most interesting things going on in Mistress America is the contrast between Tracy’s smart, poetic narration in a register that is synonymous with the likes of Gerwig and Baumbach, and the OTT hipsterness of Brooke’s dialogue. Tracy’s words teeter on pretentiousness but find a humanity and wit, whilst most of what Brooke says tips so far into pretentious bollocks that it is clear that the whole thing is one big joke. Here Baumbach and Gerwig have written one character who is a classic example of the kind of people they tell stories about, and another who is an often hilarious self-parody. In the first half in particular, the incoherence and emptiness of Brooke’s words are almost jarring next to the real world around her.

Thankfully, the mocking of Brooke’s ‘hipsterism’ becomes less pronounced as the film moves on, giving way to the film’s emotional heart. Not only is Tracy trying to find her way in the world like all college students are, but so is Brooke. Gerwig brings a vulnerability to her that, alongside a great performance from Kirke, turns this into a sweet and heartfelt film. At the film’s outset what distinguishes the characters is that one is sincere, the other is not. As those roles fluctuate and influence each other, the film grows in strength. In taking Brooke seriously as a character, Gerwig and Baumbach manage to stop their film becoming as amusing yet hollow as the people they are satirising.

Mistress America is also, let’s not forget, a comedy, and a consistently entertaining watch. A lean film at under 90 minutes, it packs in a lot of well-drawn characters, each one well-acted and amusing in their own way. One extended sequence in a house that is almost Parasite-level nice is a particular joy, great lines coming seemingly out of nowhere that are at once sharp and ridiculous. If you have seen Baumbach or Gerwig’s other films, Mistress America is in some ways exactly what you expect and other ways it is not at all. It feels more slapdash, less immaculate, than expected, and trades wistfulness for speed. All the while, it is a brisk, enjoyable film.

Whilst focussing on individual projects in the last couple of years, Baumbach and Gerwig remain together, and have a young child. They are set to write together once more on the upcoming Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie, but this time with Gerwig in the director’s chair. It is said to be a progressive take on the character, with Robbie’s Barbie doll expelled from Barbieland for not being perfect enough. It is an absurdly intriguing proposition that, when the cinemas one day reopen, we can all look forward to. For now, however, stay indoors and stream Mistress America.

Andrew Young