Like a souped-up version of his earlier 'Frances Ha', 'Mistress America' finds American writer-director Noah Baumbach ('The Squid and the Whale', 'Greenberg') working with a manic screwball energy that has more in common with old Hollywood greats like Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks than any of his previous films. It begins on the first day of freshman year as Tracy (perfectly cast rising star Lola Kirke) moves into the dorm of her New York college. In this student world, kids are so worried about being someone that they barely have time to learn.
Things begin with a running start as Tracy crushes on the first boy she meets (Matthew Shear) and yearns to be accepted into her school’s pompous literary society. But it’s not until Brooke (a gloriously hysterical Greta Gerwig) enters the picture that the film takes flight. Tracy’s mum is due to marry Brooke’s dad, and so the two girls are forced into a manufactured but mutually beneficial sisterhood.
They’re perfect foils: Tracy is paralysed by the choices offered by her new life in the big city, and Brooke – a restauranteur-designer-musician-fitness instructor who’s sustained by the sheer inertia of her schemes – has seemingly made all of those choices at once. The siblings-to-be get into a whirlwind of misadventure, and Tracy starts writing a story about Brooke (called 'Mistress America'). Eventually the film drops its anchor at a Connecticut mansion, setting the stage for one of the great comic set-pieces this side of Billy Wilder.
'Mistress America' steamrolls through its mesmerisingly dense and brief running time with such joyous violence that its themes only bubble up to the surface in retrospect, the heart of the movie identified like the dental records of a body that’s been burned beyond all recognition. This is the second script (after 'Frances Ha') that Baumbach has co-written with Gerwig (his creative and romantic partner). By its close, the film achieves the clattering velocity of an unstoppable train, and the countless number of quotable lines cohere into a gentle treatise against the need for outside validation. It's Baumbach’s lightest, funniest and most nimble film.
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