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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: Mistress America

Mistress America is a film that can't be taken at face value. A writing collaboration between filmmaker Noah Baumbach and lead actress Greta Gerwig, it's absurd and stagey - a departure from the usual more subtle performances and films from both artists - but completely self-aware.

Mistress America starts with the story of Tracy (Lola Kirke), an incoming college freshman who finds herself living in New York City. Unfortunately her efforts to fit in and make friends at school quickly fail, so at the suggestion of her mother, Tracy reaches out to her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Brooke (Gerwig). Brooke, who is played by Gerwig with a sort of effusive, determined and bubbly personality, a la Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, quickly takes Tracy in under her wing.

As they explore the city and become friends, Brooke talks about a restaurant she's going to open and all of her huge life plans, but Tracy quickly realizes that Brooke is the sort of person that will constantly talk about these big plans without ever actually realizing them (an archetype everyone knows in real life). When Brooke's hold on her dream restaurant appears troubled, the two take a trip out to the suburbs to confront present and past conflicts and look for more investors.

Kirke plays Tracy very quietly and evenly, which works well and helps balance everything out, particularly in the first half of the film. Gerwig's performance is pretty out there, straddling a fine line between cartoony and successful. In the end, I was more won over than not by her take on Brooke, a.k.a. Mistress America, a woman whose super power is to bring out the self-aware, artistic and independent side of everyone around her, while she struggles and fails to be more like everyone else.
As I said, at face value, Mistress America has some moments that are hard to swallow. The first half of the film feels like a typical Baumbach movie, but the last half takes a huge turn, turning into an absurdist stage play on film. That last half is where the film may make or break its success with audiences. It's loud, abrupt, and bizarre, but at the same time feels like a very intentional choice rather than an unintended consequence. It's a movie that requires the audience to give the director and writers some credit as they go out on a limb.

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