Noah Baumbach is not for everyone. The witty banter of his screenplays and preoccupation with the “struggles” of the privileged classes can come off as pretentious and self-indulgent. His earlier films Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale nearly feel as if they are punishing the viewer through their portrayal of insufferable characters. But with Mistress America, Baumbach brews the perfect tincture of humor, earnestness, and modernity. His punchy script highlights his greatest strengths and carves his own space as an auteur somewhere between Woody Allen, Lena Dunham, Wes Anderson, and Shakespeare. Baumbach’s best weapon is his collaboration with Greta Gerwig. As co-screenwriter and star, Gerwig creates characters that experience the same existential crises as the cast of Girls yet are more relatable, funnier, and obnoxious in an endearing way. Mistress America inspires a seemingly impossible combination of facial expressions that challenges audiences to laugh through frustrated tears.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Producers: Noah Baumbach, Rodrigo Teixeira, Lila Yacoub
Writers: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Cinematographer: Sam Levy
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Music: Britta Phillips, Dean Wareham
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Michael Chernus, Cindy Cheung, Charlie Gillette, Rebecca Henderson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Heather Lind, Matthew Shear, Dean Wareham
Premiere: January 24, 2015 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 15, 2015
US Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Gerwig and Baumbach’s screenplay follows Tracy (Lola Kirke), a young, perceptive freshman at Barnard who is too jaded to make friends or engage in any communal activities. She aspires to be a writer of profundity, a voice of generation if you will. When her only perspective friend and love interest gets a girlfriend, she decides to call up her older, soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig). Brooke turns out to be a brilliant mess of a person: one day she is designing the waiting room of a laser hair removal salon, the next she is performing onstage with the Dirty Projectors. She never went to college, but it’s okay because she’s an autodidact. Despite Brooke’s frenzied approach to life, she never looses sight of her dreams—even if those dreams change over night. She so completely buys into the myth of her life that she doesn’t even realize that one exists. Though Tracy can see through Brooke’s idealist perception of herself, she too engages in this stilted version of reality where everything is possible until you actually try. In this way they are the perfect foils for each other; they are able to see each other’s blind spots and flaws, yet love the other more for it.
Though Mistress America’s protagonists certainly have their faults and unlikable traits, they are characters that audiences find themselves rooting for and caring about. We adopt their rose colored glasses. Even if they are going about it in completely the wrong way, Brooke and Tracy are people trying to find the best versions of themselves. They remain hopeful that the path to self-discovery will bring success and happiness. This is best evidenced in Brooke’s half-baked idea to open a neighborhood restaurant called Mama’s: a gathering place for hip young people and families to enjoy hearty food served on a mismatched collection of plates. Though her dream proves impossible, she never stops striving to create a space that will allow her and her loved ones to come as they are. Brooke enchants audiences because we all only want to be the best versions of ourselves.
Baumbach’s film is also the perfect portrayal of 21st century New York: a place at once charming but difficult, promising but challenging. Brooke lives in Times Square, a neighborhood seemingly magical until you actually step foot into the streets packed with tourists. Like Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Mistress America could exist nowhere else. Brooke is the city personified and glorious in its disarray. She speaks and thinks in the rhetoric of smart phones and social media, talking a million miles a minute, but rejects the idea that technology can replace relationships. Mistress America is at once contemporary (Tracy types on an iPhone with a cracked screen) while maintaining the charm of an era when exclusive literary societies were still a big to-do about campus (all the members carry briefcases). Baumbach’s New York is probably not real, but isn’t that the point?
The film is also whip smart. Characters converse back and forth so quickly that viewing the film is like watching an Olympic ping-pong match. There are few pauses and the 84-minute feature flies by. In many ways it is staged like a play, which helps counter balance some of the very 2015 references in the screenplay. Gerwig and Kirke seem as if they have known each other for forever and their dialogue is so memorable and funny that viewers will instantly want to rewatch the movie to catch all the jokes.
Mistress America fails where other Baumbach films have succeeded because it presents a world full of contradictory characters that never stop chasing their dreams. It is about women loving and believing in women. It is about raising each other up and following through on whims. It is not always perfect, but it is earnestly trying.