Mistress America

The new comedy by Noah Baumbach, co-written with and starring his real-life partner Greta Gerwig, is very funny indeed and one of the most enjoyable films of the summer.

It’s a smashing little New York movie, less cloying than their previous Frances Ha, perhaps because it is laced with a bitter irony for its lead character, a delusional young woman Brooke still finding her place in the city.

The story takes the refreshing step of being a female comedy, about a growing friendship between Gerwig’s Brooke and a student called Tracy who’s about to become her surprise step-sister following their respective parents’ whirlwind romance.

Tracy is played by Lola Kirke, sister of Jemima Kirke from Lena Dunham’s TV comedy Girls, with which this of-the-moment indie film can easily and helpfully be compared.

Tracy is in awe of her seemingly assured and sorted new older sister who purports to know the town so well yet is clearly lost, emotionally and career-wise. Brooke says she’s opening a restaurant that’ll also be a hair salon and art space; she has ideas for books and TV shows and comic strips (one of which becomes the film’s title). But she has no “follow through”, as someone puts it.

Brooke is a very knowable character and Gerwig plays her superbly, with great timing and just the right edge of desperation. We like her initially, but then laugh at her, but never dislike her despite her self-deceptions and lies – maybe because they’re not lies, rather the dreams and creative ideas so common to the millennial age, a world of instant apps and logos and intangibility.

And it’s this lack of permanence that Baumbach captures well, with New York as a physical space no-one can afford to settle in yet also as self-aware romantic backdrop. “I feel like we’re in a song,” says Tracy as she and Brooke stroll around as if in some montage. To make the point, Baumbach fills the film with pop – every hipster cafe is playing 80s hits such as Paul McCartney’s No More Lonely Nights, or Roseanna by Toto. Like the film, we can’t quite tell if these are meant to be ironic or laughably naff – I’m guessing both at the same time.

I mean, we’re a post-ironic world, no? As Brooke says: “I’m an autodidact – and that word is one of the things I taught myself.” Later she’s aware enough to state of a boy: “He’s the kind of person I hate yet I’m totally in love with.”

The sympathies shift. Gradually, we realise Tracy is the heart of the movie and she turns her own gradually diminishing fascination with Brooke into material for a short story to impress her campus literary society. She keeps it secret from Brooke, naturally. We’re talking about a woman who can blithely say: “There’s nothing I don’t know about myself – that’s why I can’t do therapy.”

This is all funny, snappy, very now, stuff. And it looks great. There’s a climactic trip out to a glass house in Connecticut, to visit a wealthy old flame internet entrepreneur whose wife stole Brooke’s T-shirt slogan idea, and all the cast come together, very skilfully and with an almost farcical comic orchestration contrasting to the free-wheeling feel of the earlier scenes.

Lovely stuff, then, light and loose but with a deceptive depth and control, unlike poor Brooke.