Directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke
College in New York is not what Tracy (Lola Kirke) dreamt. Instead of an enriching time in her life, making new and interesting friends, she finds herself isolated and alone in the big city. When her dream of being published in the campus lit journal falls through, Tracy contacts her future sister-in-law in a desperate act to reach out to someone. With their parents due to marry in a few months, she reluctantly agrees to meet the elusive Brooke (Greta Gerwig) in Time Square. What she finds is a dreamer with grand ambitions, living a life cobbled together from numerous income streams and ongoing projects. A person that, if she was a superhero, would be her own half thought-out creation – Mistress America, the embodiment of the hustle of New York living.
A coming of age comedy combined with a failure to launch character study, Mistress America looks at the creation of self in the social media age. There is more than a bit of joy in seeing the difference between Brooke’s projected persona and her actual accomplishments. In short Brooke talks a good game but her follow through sucks. From her initial grand entrance (which she mistimes by about four steps, forcing us to wait agonising seconds as she sheepishly walks down the remainder) she is held up to ridicule. Tracy, in her inexperience, seems caught up in her wake, idealistically looking for something that college life has been unable to provide her with so far.
Somewhere in its runtime Mistress America manages to flip this reality, changing the familiar landscape in which we tread. Tracy is not as naive as first pictured, nor as caught up in Brooke’s fantasy as it initially seems. Instead, in her exploitation of the relationship for her own ends we see a side of Tracy that (although understandable) is really easy to despise. As this all comes to a head in a rather memorable set piece, we as an audience realise that our loyalties have been shifted against our point of view character. As such Mistress America is an interesting coming of age tale, as it is not so much about us forging a place in the world, but rather realising our impact as we do so. Ultimately it is in Tracy’s acceptance of her actions’ impact on others that alters her path.
Which still leaves us with the issue of how to treat Brooke. Mistress America seems unsure of this. Lionise her as the last of the dreamers, laugh at her for her ill formed ideas, pity her for her unrealistic outlook – all seem somewhat lacking in the end. Perhaps that is the point. Gerwig has created such an energetic and likable character, that despite all her many faults we do not wish ill on Brooke. As life is never going to miraculously conform to her, perhaps it is better not to see the inevitable.
For the most part Mistress America does what it does, well. Its sharp dialogue and skewering view on society is entertaining. At times, though, it is easy to lose a degree of empathy with every character on screen as they grow increasingly self-absorbed. As that wanes you become less invested in their plight, and genuinely frustrated by their sense of entitlement. Fortunately Baumbach (Frances Ha) is eventually able to lure us back, but every major character seems to undergo a similar process.
Ultimately it feels like Baumbach has said all of this before, and somewhat better in his other work, but it is still worth a look.