While “screwball comedy” accurately describes the Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig collaboration that is “Mistress America,” there is an undercurrent at work that is utterly new. While the characters are based in reality, there’s a strangeness at play bordering on the alien.

A weird world exists in the New York City and Connecticut setting of this brief yet unforgettable film. I think these two have made one of the most subtly original movies of the year.

Gerwig wrote herself a wacky gal in the role of Brooke, a vivacious New Yorker hustling jobs that range from tutor to SoulCycle instructor who also hopes to open a restaurant. Gerwig makes this woman such a shifting presence from fun and beautiful to flaky and hateful. We see her through the eyes of a college freshman, Tracy (Lola Kirke), a young woman adrift as she launches her own life.

(Photo/ Fox Searchlight Pictures) “Mistress America” covers new ground for female characters in a weird but unforgettable screwball comedy.

(Photo/ Fox Searchlight Pictures) “Mistress America” covers new ground for female characters in a weird but unforgettable screwball comedy.

Tracy is something of an enigma; her lack of a strong direction, or what she describes as needing a “signature look,” is reflected in her observation of Brooke. After their first seemingly magical night out partying together, Tracy seems utterly starstruck by Brooke. Yet the next morning, she returns to her dorm and begins a short story starring a character based on Brooke. Her unflattering portrayal of Brooke is one of the central dramatic elements of the film. How does Tracy really feel about Brooke, and how do we?

Women characters face an entirely different standard of likability than their male counterparts, and this script forges into new territory. Gerwig’s essential cuteness delivers lines that veer between remarkably clever and utterly idiotic, with a naivete that belies the intense verbosity and extreme speed of her delivery. The ghosts of lovable female kooks are both summoned and vanquished with her deeply idiosyncratic portrayal of Brooke.  

I was reminded of “Damsels in Distress,” a 2011 Whit Stillman movie starring Gerwig in a similar role; she played a girl who behaved and spoke in a very deliberate and mannered way, and through her own behavior set out to change the entire social structure and values of her university. That film was terrible where “Mistress America” is brilliant; the current film achieves what the earlier film’s characters attempted.

By a weird fidelity to a specific vernacular, “Mistress America” is an invented landscape not unlike “Star Wars.” The soundtrack has an ‘80s feel, the setting is contemporary and Greta Gerwig channels Katherine Hepburn. When the story moves from New York City to Connecticut as Brooke tries desperately to raise last-minute cash for her restaurant, a wacky ensemble comedy develops and the dialogue veers further away than ever from reality. It is an art film about making art.

A sequence in which the characters — including Brooke, two of Tracy’s college friends and Brooke’s wealthy frenemies to whom she’s appealing for restaurant funding — turn on Tracy and subject her story about Brooke to an artistic Inquisition, places us in that ancient dramatic structure, a play within a play.
As inspired and well-written a character as Brooke is, her younger counterpart, Tracy, is also fascinating. Her reactions are impossible to predict and both women are a triumph of characterization in their own ways.

This film is as individually drawn as anything from Wes Anderson, but in a far more underplayed way. Baumbach’s verbal signature is now as strong as Anderson’s visual one. The interplay between old cinematic tropes and boldly original filmmaking is both powerfully familiar and subtly unlike anything you have seen before.

“Mistress America” is available to rent.