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Mistress America is about two people who dream of wild success but have no idea how to achieve it. Worse, they lack the stick-to-itiveness to dedicate themselves to figuring out how to achieve it, and as such, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s (While We’re Young) film becomes a fascinating look at today’s young adults and why — due to personal, cultural and technological factors — many can’t seem to navigate their way to success.

We expect Tracy (Lola Kirke) to be a bit lost. She’s a lonely college freshman who feels like an outcast. She wants to be a writer, but lacks the knowledge and inspiration to do quality work. When she gets a crush on Tony (Matthew Shear), she thinks the feeling is mutual until one day he shows up with girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones)  whom he met after he started hanging out with Tracy. So, yes, Tracy is that girl: The disaffected, lovelorn, dowdy, intelligent, and deep-down nice person the world either ignores or eats up and spits out.

Unable to make friends in her New York City dorm, Tracy starts hanging out with her future sister-in-law Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited dreamer who does (and has done) a little bit of everything. Brooke is the type of person who says everything she thinks, even when thoughts as random as SAT tutoring, religion and geology are voiced within minutes of one another. Her latest idea is to open a restaurant for her fellow NYC bohemians even though she doesn’t cook. She’s engaging and a joy to be around, but completely scattered and a bit manic.

In Brooke, Tracy secretly finds a writing muse and, more important, discovers a vitality and joy of life she hadn’t experienced. Their interactions are humorous, contemplative and compelling, as Baumbach deftly finds the haughty nothingness of a young generation that hasn’t accomplished much but is convinced it will conquer the world.

The film is not perfect. An 84-minute run time is far too short for a misshapened story that begins with a focus on Tracy and then switches almost entirely to Brooke. The story also strains credibility at times, and some of the characters are archetypes, but overall it’s an effectively funny and timely tale of lost souls who think they find something in each other only to be left with questionable results.

This story would be nothing without its actors, and they are superb. Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach, is a delight as the flaky enchantress who unwittingly becomes Tracy’s salvation. Kirke is fine as the impressionable Tracy, and the two are surrounded by supporting players who click with an easy chemistry. Indeed, as the latter half of the film plays out inside a house, you can almost feel the ease with which the actors inhabit the same space, promptly hitting their cues and delivering lines with alacrity. It’s an absolute joy to watch.

In the past, Baumbach has eagerly presented the angst of middle-class Americans but fallen short of making a real commentary on the issues he presents. Here the message is clear: Today’s youth is conditioned to be superficial, to treat everything as if it’s fleeting, to treat all communication like a text and all quests for knowledge like a Google search. The byproduct of this is a whole population of young adults who understand in theory how to be a grownup, but don’t know how to actually conduct themselves as grownups. The vapid-yet-pleasant result of this? Brooke, and it’s the path Tracy is headed toward as well.

That said, Mistress America isn’t a biting commentary on the detritus of American youth and the dystopian future that awaits. Baumbach’s touch is lighter than that, appropriately subtle in a way that’s both relatable and thought-provoking. The result is that Mistress America is funnier and more enjoyable than most of Baumbach’s previous work, which is to say, it’s worth seeing.

About EU Jacksonville

october, 2021

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