Tracy (Lola Kirke) is an eighteen-year-old attending her first year of college in New York City, but she's finding it difficult to make friends and tends to eat meals alone, while her roommate is not exactly encouraging and her course work begins to suffer as she falters in her dedication. Perhaps concentrating on her ambitions to become a writer will lift her out of her doldrums, but the main channel for that is an exclusive society who will only publish a story in their magazine if they approve it, and the only way they do that is to sneak into the accepted author's dorm room in the middle of the night and plant a custard pie in their face. Is this what Tracy wants? How about she follows the suggestion of her mother (Kathryn Erbe)?
She prompts Tracy to call up Brooke, the woman who will be her new stepsister, who happened to be played by Greta Gerwig; she had collaborated with director Noah Baumbach, her partner she had worked with creatively before, on the script. She evidently knew where her strengths lay as the dialogue was carefully contrived to sound just right emerging from her mouth, not perhaps stretching her talents but if you've found something you’re good at, why not set about it with aplomb? This female hipster (hipstette? Hipstess?) persona served her well in Mistress America, for we were intended to find her character amusing and sympathise with her more as the narrative progressed.
As if to say, those striving to be achingly cool and ending up pretentious are people too, goddammit, so laugh all you like, there's a genuine soul in there. This was a lesson to be learned by Tracy, who is enchanted with the older but maybe no wiser new person in her life, so much so that she takes her quirks and places them in a short story she's working on. You could see where this was headed as it was only a matter of time before somebody discovered the similarities in Tracy's text, but that wasn’t the whole story as she found that keeping a friend, never mind finding one in the first place, is a very important thing in life and something to be treasured even if you don’t always see eye to eye.
Not that Brooke is aware that Tracy doesn't always agree with her, as when a subject emerges where there’s a disagreement, Tracy is skilled enough to keep Brooke on her side. If this is making the younger woman sound like a Machiavelli of sorts, that’s not accurate, as she was prey to the same insecurities and errors as her potential new stepsister was, it’s just that she hid them better. Gerwig and Kirke made for a winning pair, sparking off each other with some very funny, comically poker faced dialogue that simultaneously sent the pair up while gently hinting at the fragility of their egos, hopes and dreams that rendered them that bit more human. Not that everyone watching was going to get on with the script's idea of humour, as it seemed there were just as many detractors as there were appreciators.
Mistress America was a very specific brand of character comedy which might appeal more to the target of its wit than those who would have liked to witness that target brought down, which might have been because it genuinely liked the folks who populated its brief running time. Whereas Baumbach's companion piece While We're Young delivered its generation gaps with exasperation, this was more forgiving, though still acknowledging that just because you’re getting older there’s no guarantee you'll have anything worked out whatsoever. The plot culminated in a scene where for complicated reasons Tracy has ended up with a variety of people simultaneously reading her story based on Brooke, yet while there was a real pain in watching what might have been caricatures waking up to the fact that each one of us contains a spectrum of emotions and even the most cartoonish of us can be hurt, it remained laugh out loud funny in places, and often as well. Nicely played deadpan style by a cast who never came across as too studied, it may not have been anything new, but was fresh enough. Music by Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham.