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Mistress America PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
10 09 2015

ImageDirected by Noah Baumbach

Families, loneliness, self-delusion are the themes of this film, the third in less than two years from Baumbach, who with his prolific output, throw-away one-liners and articulate, needy, self-deceiving New Yorkers, can't but put you in mind of vintage Woody Allen. A new student in New York, Tracy (Lola Kirke) is unhappy and lonely, until she meets her future elder sister Brooke (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of her mother's new husband-to-be. Enthralled by her kooky charm and the entrée into thrilling city life she provides, Tracey becomes a fascinated admirer.

Like Frances Ha it centres on an impressive performance by Greta Gerwig, an actress who, like Woody's Diane Keaton, can be preposterous and funny at the same time as touching and utterly compelling, one minute a superbly physical comedian, the next full of emotional subtlety. But though always watchable, she's often less than both in this film, which seems to be aiming for screwball comedy while still saying pretty serious stuff about family (lack of). The screwball bits sometimes work out very well, especially the extended sequence of a visit to Brooke's ex's very swish house, where an Ayckbournian farce brings a collection of disconnected characters (soppy ex plus sharp-edge wife; very pregnant book-club member waiting for her lift home; student friend who has driven them there plus antagonistic girlfriend; disgruntled and nosey neighbour...) accumulate and tag along amidst increasingly preposterous activities, revelations and changing allegiances.

Along with this, and less successfully, Baumbach gives us the neediness of individuals who are adrift in the world and looking for, above all else, the connectedness of actual or virtual family, at almost any price. Brooke's dream of running a restaurant where the cooking is like momma used to make and the staff one big happy family is poignant but doomed from the moment we hear her deludedly matter-of-fact description of the boyfriend who's supposed to be investing her money in it. ‘He's the kind of guy I usually don't like, only I'm in love with him', just about nails the nature of her fantasy nicely. Tracy is mad keen to be accepted by the elitist literary magazine crowd, tedious and self-centred though they look. Both women are desperate for sisterhood, and devastated when Brooke's mother decides to call her wedding off, thereby ditching their potential to become actual sisters. They might stay close, except that Tracy's starstruck view of the fascinatingly odd Brooke has inspired her to anatomise her in a short story, which gains her entrée into the highly desired literary circle, seen by Brooke as a betrayal... But sadly, despite a crackling script and energetic performances it never quite succeeds in making us care enough.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 25 August 2015

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