Mistress America review: queen of the Big Apple

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach reteam for another New York-set dramedy, a compact marvel that will repay repeated viewings

Mistress America
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Director: Noah Baumbach
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus, Cindy Cheung, Kathryn Erbe
Running Time: 1 hr 24 mins

It may or may not be a coincidence that, this week, we get to see two films, both written by their stars, following charismatic but mildly troubled young women as they pinball about New York City.

Mistress America, the latest bookish collaboration between Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, is superior to the meandering Trainwreck in every regard. Like Frances Ha, in which Gerwig reintroduced Baumbach to the human race, Mistress America is, indeed, a compact marvel that will repay repeated viewings.

Ms Gerwig, declaring the best lines like a future Lady Bracknell, seems, at first, imperious as a beautiful, charismatic socialite named (what else?) Brooke. Her first meeting with the younger, less open Tracy Fishcoe (Lola Kirke), whose mom is about to marry Brooke’s dad, occurs atop a set of scarlet steps in the centre of the city. “Do you know where Times Square is?” Brooke says patronisingly, before escorting Tracy to an apartment near that unlikely address.

Out of Fitzgerald by way of Capote, Brooke appears to own the city. The stuff she nominally calls work – interior design, aerobics instruction – are really just enhanced hobbies. She strolls onstage with bands. Her clothes seem honoured to be worn by somebody so charming. Tracy is enchanted.


To this point, Brooke could hardly seem less like the aimless Frances. The most telling scene sees a contemporary confronting her in a bar and accusing her of being a bully at high school. From that point on, we become aware of cracks on the elegant carapace. The not-all-together likable Tracy – who is prone to stealing trinkets from her new friend's shelves – looks to capitalise on Brooke's weaknesses. (As in Baumbach's While We're Young, there are nods to All About Eve in this universe.)

In fact, Gerwig looks to be taking a second tweak at a potentially intriguing persona: the New York society woman who doesn’t really “do” anything. Underneath the façade, Brooke is every bit as fragile (and likable) as Frances.

Does Gerwig need to move on? Not at all. Directed with great exuberance by Baumbach – watch how faces emerge absurdly from the bottom of the frame – and photographed in dreamy hues by Sam Levy, Mistress America could be just the second episode in an exploration that could extend comfortably for decades. Keep up the good work.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist