After taking precise and damaging aim at family dynamics and interpersonal friendships in his early films (Kicking & Screaming, The Squid and The Whale, Margot at the Wedding), the astute and continually subversive filmmaker Noah Baumbach has recently switched gears a bit, with his acerbic sights set on wandering souls, millennial culture and societal expectations, with Greenberg, Frances Ha, While We’re Young, and most recently, Mistress America, forming some sort of thematically linked quartet. Co-written with co-star and wife Greta Gerwig, who knows how to play aimless, flighty and oblivious to an almost scary degree, the film charts the sideways struggle of a college freshmen named Tracy, played by the interesting actress Lola Kirke, who is seeking comfort and reassurance during an awkward, transitional period in her life. She’s a directionless student who has a hard time getting motivated, with her general apathy becoming challenged by her future stepsister Brooke (Gerwig), a free spirit and seeming jack-of-all-trades, a thirtysomething desperately wishing she was still a twentysomething, who jumps at any chance she can get to take an easy way out, clinging to anyone who might be able to help to continue keeping her afloat.
But at first, that’s not how Tracy views Brooke; she becomes emotionally smitten with her, looking up to her as a sort-of role model, until the picture becomes achingly clear: This is a person who hasn’t a clue how to live life. Baumbach loves to crush his targets with dry wit and harsh observation, and the way that he peels back the inherent phoniness of an entire generation of people with their constant “Me-Me” attitude speaks to his determination to portray cinematic millennial malaise in a way that few filmmakers have tried. Always critical of his characters and never interested in tying matters up with a neat bow, Baumbach and Gerwig’s script zeroes in on the situational aspects of the narrative (the screwball midsection is a highlight), and allows reflective character moments and dramatic beats to swim to the surface. This isn’t a flashy movie or attention getting from an aesthetic perspective, but rather, Baumbach wants his slim but potent film to rest confidently on its words and its message, which is often extremely funny in an all-too believable manner.