If Trainwreck is the funniest movie of the year in that raunchy, sports-fueled, mainstream sort of way, then Mistress America is Trainwreck's separate-but-equal, quirky, indie cousin.
Greta Gerwig stars as Brooke, the 30-year-old spitfire who literally lives in Times Square and has an energy that could be a little too cloying from any other actress. Brooke teaches a spin class, tutors kids in their homes, sings in bands and has big aspirations to open her own restaurant.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke) is toiling through her first semester at Barnard College, where she fancies herself a writer of the struggling, misanthropic variety. Fate conspires to bring the girls together when we learn that Tracy's mom is engaged to marry Brooke's dad. Brooke and Tracy hang for one night in New York City, and poof! An instant friendship forms.
So goes the setup of writer/director Noah Baumbach's story, with Gerwig, his partner, as co-writer and collaborator. Baumbach always gives us these weird, imperfect movies about people who are brilliant and exuberant but maybe functionally challenged (Greenberg, Frances Ha), and such is the case here.
When Tracy wakes up after a night of partying in Brooke's "commercially zoned" apartment, Brooke tells her to get the coffee started. Tracy tells her she doesn't know how, and Brooke says, "Of course you know how, look at it for two seconds, don't be incompetent." She's forgotten the poor girl is barely an adult, and frankly, I have a hard time remembering as well, since Kirke is 24 in real life and has the speaking voice of someone twice that age. But Hollywood refuses to acknowledge my complaint that teenagers in films should be played by actual teenagers, so move on we must.
The plot thickens when the financial backer for Brooke's restaurant bows out. Never mind why, but it leads to a desperate confrontation at Brooke's rich ex-boyfriend's house, who is now married to Brooke's ex-best friend. Also, Tracy's crush from school is there, along with his jealous girlfriend. Add to the cast of characters a couple of cats, a mean neighbor who drops in and out and a pregnant woman's book club, and we've got an old-school comedy on our hands. It's like one of Ingrid Bergman's screwier films, or a John Hughes Breakfast Club-like setup if you're into more contemporary references.
These cooks say the wittiest things to each other, like, "Don't talk about Twitter, it's so awkward" or "I just learned what case-sensitive meant, like seriously, yesterday." There's interpersonal relationship stuff at stake, too, all of it heading toward a pretty absurd and made-up crescendo involving a short story written by Tracy. Will it or will it not end up in the school's literary journal, and what will that mean for Brooke, on whom the sometimes too-honest story is based?
Mistress America can be a little clunky and unsure of itself at times, but that's not a criticism so much as a further description of the characters as they relate in time and space. I admired in particular one scene where a homely girl from high school confronts Brooke at a bar to tell her how much her teasing hurt her feelings. "I don't care!" Brooke says, as the woman skulks off in defeat. "And neither should you!"
As an awkward high schooler myself, I really should have been on the bullied woman's side, but Gerwig's charming performance outweighed my sympathy. She may literally be a witch.
Mistress America opens at the Roxy Fri., Sept. 4.