The surprising face of our penchant for combining love and work, with two blunt, importunate eyes and slightly pursed lips, nods off in seminar not long into “Mistress America.” After waking her with a gentle hiss, a classmate (Matthew Shear) marvels at her moxie. “I like moxie,” Barnard freshman Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) replies, and before we even encounter the film’s molten core—the incandescent Greta Gerwig—another star is born.
Despite her second billing, Kirke is in fact the motor of “Mistress America,” the impressionable prism through which the film’s creative impulses must pass. As Tracy, a loner with literary ambitions, befriends Brooke (Gerwig), her glamorous stepsister-to-be, she also begins to absorb Brooke’s wounded narcissism and wild allure. Kirke’s performance is, in this sense, a master class in the mirror effect: against Gerwig’s comic bluster, she’s as still as a summer pond, reflecting her counterpart’s mercurial weather as it darts across the sky.
Director Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote the script with Gerwig, appears to see the characters in much the same way. After all, the film’s defining images—Brooke descending a set of bright red steps in Times Square, Brooke and a clown car’s worth of privileged eccentrics reading short fiction in a Greenwich, Conn. mansion—are seen from Tracy’s point of view. Even when he focuses on her and her alone, as she reels from the film’s climactic confrontation, she’s no more than a silhouette. She might be anyone. Hell, she still can be anyone. “Spirit says you need to find your home in yourself,” a medium advises her on this point. “Spirit says you haven’t dropped into your body yet.”
It’s an apt sentiment for a performer whose first major roles, in “Mistress America” and Amazon’s Golden Globe-nominated comedy series “Mozart in the Jungle,” both came within the past 12 months: like her characters, Kirke is not yet typecast, and her foremost skill as an actor may be to suggest the malleable substances we become when we try to carve a path in a world teeming with more accomplished artists. The younger sister of Jemima Kirke (HBO’s “Girls”), she channels the experience of trying—and possibly failing—to “do what you love,” and to risk losing that love in the process.
In “Mozart in the Jungle,” from creators Paul Weitz, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, and Alex Timbers, Kirke plays Hailey, an aspiring oboist and assistant to the New York Symphony’s tempestuous new conductor, Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal), a wunderkind of such manic energies that Brooke seems a wallflower by comparison. As in “Mistress America,” Kirke is not the headliner, but the control she exerts amid a barrage of broader comic turns emerges as the series’ through line. (At times, it seems as though each member of the cast is acting in a different TV show.)
Bernal flits from despondence to ecstasy; Malcolm McDowell rages, rather lazily, as the orchestra’s former maestro; and Bernadette Peters charms as the wealthy board chair angling for every dollar to keep the institution alive, but Kirke’s Hailey heightens the stakes. With her devotion to the music fulfilled, tested, lost, and rediscovered over the course of the first season, she anchors the series’ playful, at times forgettable, satire of its rarefied setting in the same sincere sense of want as Tracy: to be somebody, even if it means being somebody else.
If nothing in the new season, which debuts today, lives up to the dreamy fête of last year’s “You Go to My Head,” directed by Coppola in long, fantastical shots of ponies in drawing rooms and daybreak serenades, Kirke still succeeds in recreating the childlike wonder of the novice, the upstart, the interloper. Visiting a legendary oboist’s tiny apartment, or star struck by musical luminaries at an arcade, Kirke finds such sighing pleasure in Hailey’s chosen craft that the series’ many changes of key resolve, for a time, into something like awe. The only way to pursue a career in the arts, after all, is to allow oneself to be left speechless by their power.
In the end, though, the thread that ties Tracy and Hailey together is the realization, to use Rodrigo’s analogy, that falcon and falconer cannot remain attached forever, that one of keys to finding a voice is realizing that none of our idols have a monopoly on self-possession. Kirke’s talent is such that she becomes the screen onto which we project our own cravings for approval and accomplishment—and then, with that laconic, thick-voiced calm, as fuzzy as a hangover, pulls each character back from mere mimicry. To do what you love, “Mistress America” and “Mozart in the Jungle” make clear, is not simply to mirror your idols, but to understand that the “you” in this equation is as important as any other variable.
To wit, when Tracy and Brooke meet for the final time, as the former marks the passage of her first semester in college and the latter ties off the wounds of a lost decade in New York, the distance between our intrepid heroine and her self-styled Boswell narrows to the vanishing point. As Brooke explains, her desire to do everything has left her unable to do anything, a paralysis of passions. “I think I have that too,” Tracy says, and thanks to Kirke’s impressive work, both she and Hailey are much closer kin to their prodigious mentors than either knows. Maybe we all are.
“Mozart in the Jungle” is now streaming on Amazon.