“I wish we lived in feudal times, where your position in the world couldn’t change,” says Brooke (Greta Gerwig) near the end of Mistress America. “If you were a king, or a peasant, you had to just be happy with who you were.” Such a sentiment lies at the heart of the movie: young adults living in the world today have more freedom than ever. Not only do they not have to comply with a societal role they’re born with, but generally they’re not even tied down by societal expectations, like getting a sturdy 9-to-5 job, raising kids, and receding to the suburbs. Millennials have a liberty to do whatever they fancy in life, to pursue their dreams without being weighed down by pressure from older generations demanding that they be more “responsible.” What do you do? I do things I love.
Theoretically it sounds enticing, and most people afforded such freedom I imagine are immensely grateful for it. I know I am. But at some point this autonomy over one’s direction in life precipitates anxiety. Anxiety about succeeding at your goals, about getting recognition, about getting the necessary funds for a project, about simply putting in enough hours each day to really be good at what you want to do. Ironically, this freedom specific to the here and now can give the sense of imprisonment: you feel stuck in a cage of doubt about your worth and worry over whether your dreams will ever come to fruition.
Such is the dilemma Brooke is grappling with in that aforementioned line, and such is the problem Baumbach has framed his witty and devilishly sharp screwball comedy around.
It doesn’t start with Brooke, however, but rather Tracy (Lola Kirke), an idealistic but somewhat callow college Freshman who has ventured out to New York City to study, to write, to conquer the world.
The paradise she likely envisioned is palpable to the viewer: a fresh land, fresh faces, a fresh start, crisp autumn weather, old coffee houses and cigarettes on park benches and endless creativity. But instead she’s met with disillusionment and loneliness. She meanders the streets of the city alone, skeptically wanders through the cafeteria line with both cereal and pizza on her tray, and when she’s handed back her first essay, begrudgingly mutters “a B? So annoying.” To make matters worse, the literary elite at the school are snobs who eat cheese with fine wine, carry briefcases, and reject Tracy’s story when she submits it to their prestigious lit society. And the one person she seems to connect to, an awkward, like-minded aspiring writer named Tony (Matthew Shear), with whom she swaps stories over screwdrivers, immediately starts dating someone else just when it seems he Tracy could be a couple. “You know the feeling of being at a party where you don’t know anybody? It’s like that—the whole time,” Tracy complains on the phone to her mother.
In one sense this a result of Tracy’s pre-conceived notions about college as well as her stubborn unwillingness to adapt to the reality of the situation (college, after all, is rarely for anyone the complete utopia they thought it would be). But at the same time you get the feeling that there’s still something out there for her, that to compromise and sink into the standards of college life would be at the expense of finding that something. For someone as independent-minded as Tracy is, you gather that what she really needs is experience and adventure instead of the controlled confines of a collegiate institution.
Indeed, just when it seems as though her fantasies about this new life have been completely dispelled, she learns about Brooke, a 30-year old New Yorker who is the daughter of the man Tracy’s mother is about to marry. At mom’s suggestion, Tracy arranges a meeting with her soon-to-be sister-in-law, at which point what seemed to be a film about living at college becomes, like his previous film with Gerwig, Frances Ha, a story about artistic pursuits struggles in the city.
Brooke is a magnificent creation by Bambaugh and co-writer Gerwig (their second screenwriting collaboration after Frances Ha), buoyant, ambitious, and who, like Tracy, would rather create things to make the world better rather than simply adapt and live in the one they’re given.
As Tracy waits in Times Square, we’re introduced to Brooke as she descends the TKTS red stairs, her arms open wide, exclaiming, “Welcome to the Great White Way!” Her dramatic entrance is a microcosm of what’s to come: Brooke is enthusiastic to a fault, a little overwhelming, but so fresh and loose that Tracy is thrilled to look up to her, as she literally does as Brooke descends the staircase.
But in a film full of them, Baumbach immediately throws a red flag. Why is Brooke living in touristy, flashy, opulent Times Square? “I got of the bus from Jersey and thought this was the cool place to live,” she explains. “It’s motherfucking Times Square!” Someone like Tracy would never consider living there, but she’s so taken by Brooke’s zest for life that may she overlooks the fact that perhaps her new friend doesn’t quite know what she’s doing.
In any event, they spend the evening together and we get a full dose of Brooke as the two of them hit up a music venue (Brooke even goes up on the stage to dance and sing, as if she can’t do anything without drawing the utmost attention to herself), a bar, and a party, with Brooke talking incessantly the entire time while Tracy beams in awe (she’ll try to interject comments in their conversation, but Brooke doesn’t seem to hear them, as if she’s planned out a continuum of words that can’t be interrupted). Baumbach and Gerwig pack the incessant dialogue with the kind of witty quips you’d find in a 30s screwball comedy (“I didn’t go to college,” Brooke explains. “I’m an autodidact. That word is one of the things I self-taught myself”), and while for the viewer Brooke comes across as self-absorbed, the writing is so good that we still can’t help but be amused and even a little delighted by her.
Tracy’s sudden submergence into a whole new world in the city lifts her spirits and provides a creative spark of energy. When she returns to her dorm the next day, she sits down to write without even removing her hat and scarf (a wondrous little detail any writer will understand: that feeling of urgency to get your words down before they slip away). Her subject is Brooke, changing her name to Meadow but going so far as to use her exact lines from the previous night and even taking the title, Mistress America, from an idea for a TV series Brooke told her about.
Watching the film, I realized that Tracy is our conduit, someone through whom we get to experience Brooke and create ideas about her. As a viewer I knew Brooke would be interesting to write about, thus when Tracy does the same I felt almost a writerly kinship with her. Brooke is the kind of person a literary mind dreams to investigate.
As Tracy continues to hang out with Brooke, she gets a tour of a building where Brooke plans to open a “community center, a store, and a restaurant, all in one.” It’s the most ambitious of many projects Brooke has in mind, and while her reach may exceed her grasp, she has enough sense and entrepreneurial spirit to understand the ins and outs of her projects, the largest of which is getting funding. It gives us the sense that Brooke really is invested in her pursuits, thus as a young artist in the city we do take her seriously. But this is also supposed to be a funny movie, so we can’t help but laugh at her outrageous drive as well (I want to make a home for all the knockers and runners! I keep the hearth. Hearth—that’s a word, right?”)
Trouble arises when her rich boyfriend calls from Greece to tell her that he is no longer on board to give her the money to start her business. We’ve only just met Brooke, but already we see her pursuit of creative endeavors hindered by one of the central problems I opened this piece with: financing. This always results in anxiety and desperation, and Brooke is forced to get creative, which leads to one of my favorite scenes in any movie this year.
Recruiting Tony to drive them to Greenwich, Connecticut because he’s the only one who has a car (he reluctantly agrees, though he’d rather be in his room reading The Nichomachean Ethics), Brooke and Tracy set off the find the former’s old roommate, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) and her husband Dylan to ask for money they supposedly owe Brooke. Along for the ride is Nicholette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), Tony’s surly, attention-hungry girlfriend.
What results is a half hour sequence—almost like a film-within-a-film—that plays like a comedic farce from a Preston Sturges movie. The house is a massive, ultra-modern piece of architecture plopped in suburbia. It’s the perfect breeding ground for an unhappy housewife, which is exactly what Maime-Claire is. “I thought we weren’t speaking,” is her way of welcoming Brooke and co., but she’s considerate enough to invite them inside to wait for Dylan to get return (but they have to hang out in the kitchen because she’s in the middle of something “like a party,” though in fact it’s just a bunch of housewives trying to discuss Faulkner, much to Tony’s delight).
Bambaugh uses this sequence as a platform for firecracker dialogue and comedic energy, with an endless supply of wit to accompany his stellar use of blocking. Characters constantly wander in and out of the frame, as one funny problem after another arises. Brooke starts drinking and tries to seduce Tony, whose girlfriend has fled upstairs, angry that he stopped their game of chess after he realized he was losing. On top of that we have Maime-Clare’s pregnant friend who’s stuck there while she waits for her husband to pick her up, and a neighbor who complains that Tony’s car is blocking his driveway and then proceeds to invite himself inside. When he eventually arrives, Dylan, a cheerful, amiable fellow (but the joke with him is that he seems to justify his dull suburban lifestyle by talking about the cool things he did and could have done in his youth), starts making drinks and searches desperately for his stash of weed that seems to have disappeared—all to Maime-Claire’s immense displeasure.
Despite the scene’s immense pleasures, we do sort of wonder where Baumbach is going with all of this, until eventually we see he’s using it as a culmination of all of the underlying problems with these characters that has been present all along but not properly discussed.
Eventually, Brooke gets to make her pitch for the restaurant, but in the spotlight she can’t find her words and suddenly seems vulnerable. It’s not until Tracy jumps in and talks about some of the ideas behind the venture that Brooke is able to ease up and continue her presentation properly. It gives off the idea though that Brooke has an inherent insecurity and it is only when she’s around people like Tracy, people who look up to her and has power over, that she is able to maintain the control and confidence exhibited by her for most of the film.
This isn’t especially surprising, as all along we’ve sort of suspected that Brooke is the sort of person who has too many dreams for her own good and will probably never be able to fulfill them in the way she imagines.
What is a little surprising is the real climactic moment in the film in which the attention moves from Brooke to Tracy and the story she’s written. Nicolette has gotten a hold of it, and through her jealousy unleashes its premise, that Tracy has taken the events from a single night with Brooke and created a story that is ultimately judgmental of her.
Brooke sits in a chair and reads it in horror as everyone looms over her shoulder except for Tracy, who waits in awkward discomfort.
Tracy’s story suggests that Brooke is essentially all talk and no walk, that she is “doomed for failure.” Brooke angrily feels that Tracy has stolen her life for her own creative project, which raises an important question about the extent to which a writer should use their own experience in their work. Tracy argues that Tennessee Williams would have never written anything if he hadn’t borrowed from the lives of those around him, yet at the same time there’s the element of sensitivity involved: it’s the problem of not just exposing another person’s self for creative purposes, but also making a negative judgment about them in the process.
Baumbach isn’t out to solve this issue but merely to broach it, as he did similarly in his 2007 film Margot at the Wedding. It’s part of the film’s overarching idea that to be young and to have freedom to create anything in the modern world is a far more complicated possibility than it might seem on paper.
Ironically, Tracy’s story ends up getting published by the school’s literary society. She’s so fed up with their pretentious egos, though, that she decides to start her own lit society, which will probably bring on even more whirlwinds of confusion, frustration, and disappointment. If there’s a point to this movie, it’s that it’s never enough to have ideas and projects that you are trying to work on. There needs to be a level of commitment and skill to see these projects through. Brooke seems incapable of doing this, while Tracy has the tenacity to bring her ideas to life when inspiration strikes. But this struggle only leads to more struggles, to the point where it can be tempting to give up, to long to live in feudal times.
“You know what’s funny?” Tracy says to Brooke after they’ve reconciled and Brooke’s restaurant plans have fallen apart. “I’m not even done with my first semester of college yet.” “This won’t even be your big story,” Brooke replies, as she packs up her apartment to seek new adventures in LA. And that perhaps is the hope for any artist, to constantly be moving forward and refuse to allow disappointment to be like a patch of mud for your wheels to get stuck in.
There have always been artists, creative spirits dreaming of fulfillment, and in the emotionally tumultuous modern world of Mistress America, there are more of those opportunities than ever before. But that also means more chances to be let down and more anxiety over making tough decisions. With its screwball mannerisms Baumbach’s film seems to harken back to a time when things were simpler. But that’s simply a guise for its real depiction of the crazy, hilarious, and confusing experience of dreamers and their dreams, passion projects by people who don’t do enough because they have so much to work with. Thankfully, like Tracy, we get to write about it.