The first year of college is an anxious time for anybody. The predictable framework of high school falls away, and a teenager who lived with her parents is suddenly a free-range semi-adult with her own dorm room and infinite decisions to make about who she will become.
Actress Lola Kirke embodies this anxiety and vulnerability in “Mistress America,” a sharply written exploration of identity and friendship by director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig in their third cinematic collaboration.
With its crackling, stylized dialogue, “Mistress America” almost should have been a play. Its deliberately crafted phrases stick around long after the credits roll; like, “He’s one of those people that I hate, except that I’m in love with him” and “Her beauty was that rare kind that made you want to look more like yourself and not like her.”
The language is the central character here, with wry quips coming so quickly, the film practically demands a second viewing even before the first is finished.
Tracy (Kirke) is a freshman at a New York college, and campus life is not what she expected. Her enthusiastic application for the literary society is rejected, and the one friend she makes, a guy she might even like, ends up having a super-jealous girlfriend. Tracy was expecting big-city thrills, but finds lonely ennui instead.
Things change when she meets her soon-to-be stepsister, the flamboyant, frenetic Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy is immediately taken with the 30-year-old’s dynamic personality and glamorous lifestyle. Brooke lives in an illegal apartment, has an overseas boyfriend, goes to the city’s hottest nightclubs, works as a spin instructor and talks big about her plans to open a restaurant/hair salon in Brooklyn.
She also has an idea for “a television show, which I’ve read is the new novel” about a self-made superhero named “Mistress America.”
Brooke is a dreamer. Tracy is a writer, and she gradually finds her voice by secretly cribbing story and character details from her future stepsister’s aspirations and foibles. In describing Brooke, Tracy writes, “She smelled of something rotten, like her youth had died and she was dragging around this carcass.”
With a tender balance of bravado and vulnerability, Kirke and Gerwig make their characters painfully recognizable and familiar. As Tracy, Kirke epitomizes the young hipster in unfamiliar surroundings — at once too cool to care and terribly insecure. Gerwig, who won accolades for acting in her last collaboration with Baumbach, “Frances Ha,” melts into Brooke like she was her all along.
Gerwig and Baumbach said they developed Brooke’s character first and wrote “Mistress America” around her.
Brooke is the excitement in Tracy’s life, but the formula can’t last. “Being a beacon of hope for the rest of the world is a lonely business,” Tracy observes.
Part of the charm of “Mistress America” is the compassion it has for the two women at its heart. Oblivious to their privileged stations in life, Tracy and Brooke are each trying to realize who they are — not in relation to others, but to themselves. Though one is a teenager and the other an adult, both face similar challenges, the same ones we all face: Who am I and how do I get there?
The supporting players, including “Orange is the New Black” regular Michael Chernus and stage actor Matthew Shear in his film debut, are simplified characters who provide warm, reflective surfaces for Tracy and Brooke to see themselves.
The screenplay is the real star of “Mistress America,” even though nobody talks in real life the way people do in this film. The dialogue is orchestrated and intentional, but it fits the film’s literary themes and Baumbach and his cast keep it bubbling with energy.
An ode to language, “Mistress America” is also a picture of modern, middle-class young-adulthood, which might begin well after age 30.
“Mistress America,” a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language including some sexual references.” Running time: 86 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .