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Narcissists Are Us

Director Noah Baumbach and co-writer Greta Gerwig shine a bright comic light on friendship in Mistress America
Greta Gerwig (left) and Lola Kirke in Mistress America
Greta Gerwig (left) and Lola Kirke in Mistress America

Noah Baumbach has been making delightful movies about white twentysomething angst for, well, 20 years. He aged up a little bit with this spring’s While We’re Young, which lovingly skewered both its fortysomething leads and the twentysomething “artists” they befriended. The director got a little sweeter with 2012’s Frances Ha, the first movie in which Greta Gerwig served as his star, co-writer and muse.

Mistress America, which Gerwig also co-wrote, is somewhere in the middle. 

Baumbach’s focus is still on a certain kind of semi-youthful, moderately creative narcissism, here embodied by Brooke (Gerwig), a 30-ish New Yorker who becomes a beacon for college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke). Their parents are getting married in a few months, which gives them a tenuous connection that strengthens as Tracy tags along in Brooke’s madcap life, her admiration like jet fuel for Brooke’s ego.

Tracy travels in Brooke’s wake, eventually swept along on a trip to wealthy Connecticut, where Gerwig flails her way into a farcical climactic scene involving her female nemesis and her ex-boyfriend, along with Tracy, Tracy’s friend Tony (Matthew Shear), Tony’s wickedly jealous girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), a lawyer and Harold (a neighbor played with delicious dryness by Dean Wareham).  

Tracy, a would-be writer, isn’t just there to worship at Brooke’s stylish feet. She knows good material when she sees it and writes her way into a pretentious literary society with a story built from scraps of Brooke’s life. Near the end, the story becomes central in a moral quandary that Baumbach and Gerwig are smart enough not to resolve with a tidy answer. Is it stealing? Does it matter? 

The snippets Tracy reads in voice-over are terrible, as contrived as some of Brooke’s behavior. (Roll them into one character and they’d give Hannah from Girls a run for her money; Mistress America sometimes feels like what Girls dreams of becoming.) But that’s the point: Like most characters in Baumbach’s films, neither woman has figured herself out yet. One just puts on a better front.

Brooke can’t stop reaching for an imaginary hearth (which she isn’t sure is a word) and home; Tracy sees Brooke’s life as something to want. And nobody’s got anything right about anyone else — or themselves. Baumbach’s great skill is in crafting snappy but revealing dialogue; the funniest lines are the ones that say the most about the characters, all of whom are deeply self-centered, yet interested in being kind — if they could only figure out how. (Bijou Art Cinemas)