MODERN MASTERPIECE: Mistress AMerica

by Edwyn Hitchcock

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Mistress America follows a lost college kid, Tracy (Lola Kirke), in New York who is dealing with the everyday struggles of being in a new college, new city etc. In the depths of her struggles, she finds solace in her to-be sister, Brooke, a 30 something year old woman, living in the city. She very quickly becomes infatuated with her, and her world, following her around on her adventures in New York.

Brooke, played by Greta Gerwig, is full of life and energy giving Tracy direction in a place full of uncertainty. The film moves quickly, progressing to an intense moment in which Gerwig’s character seeks money from her nemesis and ex-fiancée. The scene, like most others in the film, is an ensemble of comedic dialogue with seemingly misguided emotion and farce. This film is a treasure.

When we watch films it’s often about perceiving the characters and the world they live in. We are always led into the outlined perimeters of a world where the story takes place which we, as a spectator, consent to buy into. It’s a world constructed such that the cracks of the illusion are brushed away seamlessly, engrossing us beyond the reality of sitting in a dark cinema in Dublin.

In Mistress America, we see a different relationship between spectator and actor, almost as if the two share a private joke. This specific kind of humour, where the actor is alluding to the awareness of the spectator, can be seen in the modern slapstick style that it possesses. The characters balance performative interaction against the daily life setting, just watch Gerwig walk down the steps of Times Square and you’ll see it.

Excellently choreographed, fact-paced dialogue, highlight Baumbach and Gerwig’s humorously attuned directing and writing skills. What is striking isn’t the visual, which so many indie films take pride in, instead, its merit lies in the subtlety. It doesn’t use profanity excessively to make us laugh. The physical comedy is illustrated in facial reactions and character engagement. It instead focuses on character arcs, clever humour with carefully written characters all of whom are idiosyncratic, even the minor roles.

Everything charms you about this film, the colours, the conversation, the music. Perhaps it’s visually a little bland, similar in some respects to modern American television series, but it doesn’t over-stylise. Instead, quiet colours attest to a quiet setting, and we can actually relate to the characters instead of seeing something too glossy we want to escape to. So much magic in this film comes from the comedy of daily life.

This film highlights a quiet and important change in cinema. The mumblecore genre moves away from big blockbusters and nostalgia that defines much of modern film. All previous notable changes in film may have been in your face, this is not. The mundane is brought to the fore. Things we are all thinking about yet refuse to acknowledge are shared with us. This is not the deepest film you will ever see, you won’t feel struck to the core at the end, but you will love it.

It will charm you with its subtlety and romance. Indeed, romance is something it fights for. The dreams and magic Brooke shows Tracy give hope unlike any character could. She stomps around New York unabashedly striving for something more and, of course, like Tracy we fall in love. Then, like Tracy, we see the inevitable defeat of this character.

This fall, like many others, is a result of the cynical and dulling efficacy of big money, the kind of money necessary for her hopes to make real the impossible. Her ambitions for a heart of the community restaurant replete with romantic clichés is telling of the fading vision in today’s world. It’s not playing into nostalgia, but giving us melancholy, hope and some humour.

This film offsets what we think will be a typical indie New York comedy, into an unexpectedly refreshing and warm tale. It breaks from Hollywood and forgoes the generic superficiality many comedies subscribe to. With its subtle literary references, availability on Netflix, and setting in college, you should go watch it. Just go watch it, trust me, and go watch it.