With the wind howling outside and drizzle patting on windows, today I settled down to begin the first of my 2016 film goals. Having missed Mistress America earlier in the year, as it wasn’t shown in any cinema within 100 miles of me, I rented it with a cup of tea and a few cheeky Hobnobs.
A fan of Noah Baumbach since 2010’s Greenberg, featuring Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig since 2012’s Lola Versus, it was definitely appealing as another one of their collaborative old school, screwball comedies.
Just arrived at college, Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke), is having problems socialising but eventually finds a friend in fellow literary fanatic, Tony, during class. Not only that, she develops a crush on him, that is, until he finds himself a girlfriend, something Tracy feels uncomfortable about. After a desperate phone call to her mum, she contacts her soon-to-be-stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), who also lives in New York City.
When Tracy spends a whirl-wind night with Brooke, she soon falls under her chaotic charm and begins to write a short story about Brooke in the hopes of making her college’s Lit Society. As they continue to spend more time together, Tracy learns of Brooke’s plan to open a restaurant named “Mom’s” after her deceased mother – until it’s revealed that her partner has pulled out of the investment.
Brooke, distraught, has to ask for money from her former friend, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) with whom she fell out with over a stolen idea and is now in a relationship with Dylan (Michael Chernus), Brooke’s former fiancé. A road-trip to their home later, relationships begin to unwind as truths are soon revealed from all corners…
Alike 2012’s Frances Ha, also directed by Baumbach and starring partner Gerwig, Mistress America begins in the same way – a stylish New York comedy about a girl with an uncertain future ahead of her. However, I’m sad to say that until Gerwig enters the melodrama, the pace is fairly slow and I wasn’t convinced initially of Kirke’s performance. It felt awkward but this could have been intended. Having excused this, the film becomes infinitely better with the introduction of more characters – each with their own quirky personality and own issues bubbling under the surface.
As I watched, Mistress America brought plenty of Baumbach’s usual themes to life; midlife and quarterlife crises, anxiety around different age groups, the fear of growing older, the younger person’s desire for more and achievement no matter what your age. It becomes apparent that Tracy wants to become the glamorous older Brooke with her exciting multi-facted career, if it can be called that, and Brooke wants Tracy’s youth and endless possibilities – it’s interesting as a woman who’s now been in both positions how realistically this is portrayed. What makes the story more tantalising is the underlying betrayal between the two women, despite them being ‘sisters’ of sorts.
More telling is a scene where a woman from Brooke’s past appears when her and Tracy are in a bar. The woman accuses Brooke of bullying her at school, calling her bitter, which she doesn’t seem to remember but then after prompting, does. It’s this bitter side to Brooke’s personality that is then brought out, it makes her, as a character, more watchable. She’s now become the frustrated, bitter woman whom she mocked. It’s clear to see her frustration with how her life has played out, carrying out temporary jobs just to make ends meat but never finishing them. It’s this conviction for her dreams that she lacks – she wishes that she could be happier with a simpler life. Gerwig plays this beautifully from start to end, initially hyperactive then dulled at the film’s conclusion.
Another scene that stands out is when Tracy is finally unveiled as the writer of the short story about Brooke, named ‘Mistress America’. Each character at Dylan’s house then rounds on Tracy, with their own opinion on why she is a bad person for having betrayed her ‘sister’. What’s telling here is that Tracy doesn’t feel guilt and she questions if that’s wrong. She doesn’t feel for her ‘sister’, she just wants the prestige from the piece that she’s written at, pretty much, any cost. It’s the all too common story of a younger woman’s drive to bolster her career. Kirke plays this well, having disliked her to begin with, she grows as a character and becomes believable. She’s no longer an awkward freshman, she’s a determined, driven young woman with dreams she needs to achieve.
In both instances, the lead women are struggling to make themselves heard in a world dictated by unrelenting time, the internet and social media – something which I can very much relate to approaching my 30’s, which made this film more appealing. Without this relate-ability, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much as Baumbach’s older films but it’s still entirely watchable as a darker piece of wit and comedy.
Have you seen any of Baumbach’s films – maybe Mistress America – or have you always wanted to?