Mistress America ***

Funny, fascinating look at young adults in contemporary America is writer/director Noah Baumbach’s best work.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“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 college freshman who is lonely and 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 a girlfriend (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 likes to either ignore or eat up and spit 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 the thoughts are as random as SAT tutoring, religion and geology 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 also completely scattered.

In Brooke Tracy secretly finds a writing muse, and more importantly discovers a vitality and joy of life she previously hadn’t experienced. Their interactions are humorous, contemplative and compelling, as Baumbach deftly finds the haughty nothingness of a young generation that’s never accomplished anything but is convinced it will conquer the world.

The film is not perfect. An 84-minute run time is far too short for a misshapen story that begins with a focus on Tracy and then almost entirely switches to Brooke. The story at times also strains credibility, 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 one another 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 supporting players who click with an easy chemistry surround them. 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 cadre of young adults who understand in theory how to be a grown up, but don’t know how to actually conduct themselves as one. The result of this is 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 end result is that “Mistress America” is funnier and more enjoyable than most of Baumbach’s previous work, which is to say it’s legitimately worth seeing.

Did you know?
Tracy attends Barnard University, which is where Gerwig went to college.

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