“We look like we’re in a song,” says Tracy as she gazes across the Hudson toward the New York City skyline in Noah Baumbach’s second feature of 2015, Mistress America. Displaying a measured decadence of youth, we find everything exactly where it’s supposed to be though the character’s eyes.
Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) thinks her new life at Barnard College is going to be a dream. It will be the realization of everything she has always wanted — the glamorous New York road to success and happiness. Unfortunately, nothing goes as planned. In one of Baumbach’s trademark montages, Tracy is met with apathy and contempt. She is not accepted into the college’s elite literary society and wonders what she is doing wrong. “When I try to participate it’s like I’m fitting in even less!” she opines to her mother. Tracy meets Tony (Matthew Shear), a diminutive boy who thinks it’s cool to mix screwdrivers in his dorm room. He soon realizes that Tracy has the spark of greatness and distances himself by wedging a comically jealous girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), between them. Alone again, Tracy is encouraged to contact her step-sister-to be, Brooke (Greta Gerwig).
During an endless night on the town, Tracy finds herself inspired by Brooke’s confidence and spontaneity. All at once, she experiences the city in the only way the young and inexperienced can: with eyes wide and open to everything. Brooke is taken on as muse and guardian. Tracy sees the endless possibilities of Brooke’s unfailing aplomb, but still recognizes her as a dying breed and writes a short story about her. In the second half, Mistress America takes a farcical turn by staging the remaining action in a space-age mansion, replete with a pregnant ladies intellectual book group and a couple who appears to have it all (but are actually miserable and materialistic). Brooke finds out about the story, and the entire house gangs up on Tracy, accusing her of being a jerk for stealing Brooke’s life for her own gain. The funny thing about this, however, is that Tracy is the only one who really cares for Brooke and recognizes her for what she is — a beautiful cliché.
Greta Gerwig has a knack for playing characters like Brooke. She is self-confident but fragile, her sense of identity hinging on what she is doing in the moment. People like Brooke are spattered across the face of cinema, as she is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who shows the uninspired how to be. What makes this cliché palatable, however, is that Baumbach (and Tracy) see right through it.
Deep down, Mistress America is a film about Tracy figuring out that she is the smartest person in the room. She does everything possible to latch on to the creativity and drive of others, without realizing that she is better than them.
Lola Kirke gives a suitably subdued performance as Tracy, perfectly embodying a young woman figuring out her place in the world. The base themes of Mistress America are often obscured by the vitality and quick wit of the screenplay, and the film gets caught up in the romance of new experiences before revealing their emptiness, as the narrative works best when being ridiculous and only dips in the maudlin for a moment when Brooke realizes her dreams are amounting to nothing. Baumbach seems to have found his niche in films about young women in the city.
Mistress America revels in the romance of being young before carefully setting its characters back down into the real world. It’s a wild ride — punchy and absurd — much like Brooke.
Lex Corbett (@trazism) is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Toronto, Ontario. She studied cinema, both theoretical and practical, at the University of Toronto and OCAD U, respectively, and currently enamoured with the films of both the American Independent Cinema and Alfred Hitchcock.