Mistress America is one of those New York-based films that attempts to reveal the absurdity and hardships of sustaining in the Big Apple. Yet at the same time (slightly) sells you the dream that it is the only place on earth you can get away with consistently sporadic behavior and the tired adage of “because I’m a ‘New Yorker'” remaining an acceptable excuse in 2015. It also questions where does the line finally cross between loyalty and sincerity amongst friends and family. And in having just listed these three attributes of the film, I suppose that truthfully, Mistress America also hands us a slice of from that big-ass pie of If You Can Make It Here, You’re Probably an Asshole or Crazy, But That Means You’re In The Right Place.
photo from The New Yorker.
The characters of Mistress America are not refreshing in that they do obsesso who they are. They are refreshign in that they pretty much, flat-out accept the ugliness of ways at times or at least try to decode their apparent pecularities.
The first description relates to Brooke, played by Greta Gerwig, a cheerful on the surface but somewhat somber on the inside girl about town. And the second lead, Tracy, played by Lola Kirke (Jemina Kirke, of GIRLS, real-life sibling), is (more) quietly self-aware of who she is. But as a Barnard Colleg freshman, doesn’t quite seem to understand why suddenly her personality is a problem and she just can’t seem to gel with any of her classmates. She wanders the city alone and only has one semi-friend in Tony (Matthew Shear) that acted as if he wanted to date her, only to be caught holding hands with his new girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) in the school courtyard by Tracy.
Tracy and Brooke are connected because their parents are set to get married. Tracy’s mother suggests that Brooke and her get to know each other and that way, she’ll even have a friend in the city. From there, Mistress America travels as a film that feels like an unintentional Woody Allen tribute with its (fantastic) true-to-life dialogue with the inclusions of occasional over-the-top loquacity, sprinkled with that classic Manhattan quirk. As annoying as Brooke can be, you can kind of see why Tracy continues to hang around her. She has the hook-up to house parties held in overpriced apartments or events, and you never know what will come out of her mouth. Hence: “Everybody I know dies.” Brooke is also the embodiment of the 90s-child woman-child. Smart, witty, a know-it-all (“Don’t be incompetent. If you spent two seconds with a coffee maker, you’ll figure it out.”) and yet she is still trying to get her shit together. In what is a constant stream of changing life goals, in Mistress America she aspires to open a restaurant/lounge/cafe. While well-illustrated in her mind, her plans to get financial backing slowly fall apart and as this is happening, Tracy is writing a fictional short story based on Brooke as a ticket into the Barnard lit society.
The film’s peak is during a moment of truth for Tracy as her reasoning for writing about her future stepsister is interrogated and obliterated. Brooke completely loses her mind over the fact that she was used as a muse in an expose light and not a Conde Nast approved studio. The comedic timing from all the actors in the scene is subtle yet ablaze. And seeing Brooke go from a screwball persona to a Tazmanian harridan is a crash you just can’t stop yourself from watching for more flames. Viewers got a hint of this trait of Brooke in an earlier scene when an old classmate confronted her about alleged bullying back in the day. But while Tracy is placed in the dog house by not just Brooke, but three other old friends of Brooke’s, their friends, and Nicolette, Brooke is revealed to be just as insecure and vulnerable as anybody else. It’s disturbingly reassuring because she acts like a total bitch towards Tracy (somewhat reasonably so) but the freak-out allows for usual rehearsed truth to just burst out of her during the time frame that we know her.
The Mistress America script was written by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. Baumbach also directed it, and both previously worked together on Frances Ha. Californian-born Gerwig has been praised by the film critics and the New York media for her portrayals of ambitious and recalcitrant to the norm Manhattan women (Empire Online regaled her as a “bonafide genius”). In playing Brooke, it feels like a culmination of a lot of Gerwig’s past credits including Lola Versus.
Mistress America leaves with you with the affirmation that self-discovery frequently arrives when we least expect it and most often didn’t ask for it. If you are a mistress of America, it’s because you’ve impressively managed to make “putty in my hands” a way of life for those around you. Or, you’re in the process of trying to get out of the cave of tiresome self-pitying.