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It’s easy to fall in love with ‘Mistress America’

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Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Mistress America” is like a good first date. It’s charming, it features rapid-fire dialogue that gets jumbled and it left me wanting to learn more about its characters. Director Noah Baumbach and co-writer Greta Gerwig (who also stars) craft an ideal blend of cynical humor and giddy energy in a film that ends almost as promptly as it begins. The lean narrative structure perfectly suits the movie’s light comedic touch.

The film introduces its protagonist in a sharply cut opening montage. Tracy (Lola Kirke) is an 18-year-old Barnard College freshman struggling to find her place. She’s unsure of what direction to pursue in school, isn’t having much fun in New York and her bond with her roommate is strained at best. Editor Jennifer Lame strings together brief sequences – in a dorm, dining hall or disinterested academic advisor’s office – to concisely orient the viewer with Tracy’s perspective. In the span of three minutes I completely empathized with her.

Tracy’s life gets more exciting when she takes her mother’s suggestion to call up her 30-year-old stepsister-to-be, Brooke (Gerwig). They meet at the steps in Times Square. Brooke calls down to Tracy in a boisterous tone and flings her arms out in greeting. This entrance establishes her alluring and eccentric character. Baumbach and Lame then whisk the audience through a rush of late night adventures as Brooke shows Tracy the sparkly side of the city that she’s been missing.

Brooke’s lively presence wins over nearly everyone she interacts with. She gleefully bounces between boozy conversations with friends and whimsically runs through the night with Tracy by her side. At one point, Brooke actually gets invited onstage at a concert to dance with the band – and the crowd cheers when they see her. That particular moment feels smartly satirical, an intentional alignment of the saccharine and cynical tones that color the entire film.

In some scenes, Brooke appears creative and bright, and in others she seems full of it. Gerwig nails the character’s aloof persona as she delivers lines like, “I’m an autodidact – that word is one of the things I self-taught myself,” with an apt mix of sincerity and silliness. Her performance deftly navigates the blurry area between genuine personality and phony affectation. I was simultaneously drawn to and mistrustful of her.

Kirke is equally great in her cleaner-cut role as a woman coming of age. Kirke balances Tracy’s nervous, reserved nature with an underlying passion. She and Gerwig feed off of each other’s charisma. When Brooke isn’t around, Kirke digs into Tracy’s loneliness. She conveys clearly the extent to which the isolated student depends on her captivating new acquaintance.

Baumbach and Gerwig’s script moves fluidly through events, deemphasizing the passage of time, working to the film’s benefit and overall flow. “Mistress America” unfolds like a realistic dream – it moved through days and nights logically enough for me to keep up with but still felt murky and untethered. In the film’s latter half, Brooke convinces Tracy and her friends to drive to a Connecticut mansion to help her settle an old grudge. The ensuing sequence takes over the movie – like an extended tangent that overrides the main subject of a conversation.

Lame heightens the absurdity as verbal confrontations intensify onscreen. Her editing jumps around the characters as multiple exchanges overlap and flow through one another. Baumbach and cinematographer Sam Levy alternate close-ups and wider shots to keep track of the many interactions. Dialogue echoes off the walls in the sprawling suburban house – the sound design here creates a hilarious chaos in an otherwise mundane space. Elsewhere, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ original music adds a fitting whimsical accompaniment to the freewheeling story.

When I walked out of the theater after the final credits rolled, I felt butterflies in my stomach and couldn’t stop smiling. The only thing I could think about was seeing “Mistress America” again. I’ll admit it – I have a crush on this movie.

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NathanFrontiero.

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