Film Review – Mistress America
Mistress America is about beginnings and faith and the people willing to try, no matter how fruitless a quest seems. After age thirty, women are programmed abandon such quests – one of our main characters here is thirty. We peer into this woman’s world through another women’s eyes, constructing the former’s identity with the bits and scraps she leaves behind her. We want her to be grand and bold and fearless; if she isn’t so, we can write her as such.
The life of Brooke (Greta Gerwig) is a series of quips and introductory paragraphs and pithy little tweets that encapsulate some musing she had on a street corner. A modern-day Carole Lombard, Gerwig perfectly balances loopy and determined, idealistic and resigned. She juggles random jobs and lives on Times Square – in a space zoned for commercial purposes.
The life of Tracy (Lola Kirke) is just beginning as she enters her freshman year at college in New York. All around her, people are defining themselves, creating who they want the world to see. For Tracy, her first months are “like you’re at a party where you don’t know anybody.” She wants to write and to be accepted into the campus literary society, the membership badge of which is a leather briefcase. She submits an article, but is rejected. Her mom is getting married over Thanksgiving break and urges her to call up the daughter of her fiancé, and Tracy is relieved when Brooke eagerly invites her to hang out.
Being twelve years apart makes Brooke a bit luminescent in Tracy’s eyes, but once the dancing and clubs and street corners wear off, the younger girl is quickly perceptive of her older “sister.” “You have to market yourself,” Brooke tells her, “If you don’t know what you’re selling, no one will buy it.” No matter what she is doing, from gathering Twitter followers to teaching at Soul Cycle to pitching a business idea to investors, Brooke wants people to believe in her, or at least the cool character she has buffed and shined and Photoshopped. Tracy, conveniently, wants something to believe in, and she approaches Brooke with a mix of awe and skepticism.
Gerwig and Noah Baumbach cowrote the story of these women who are living in the world of the “new mythology,” as Brooke says, where aspects of personas are heightened by clicks and diminished through lensing and edits. The more details are constructed on the blips and compartments of social media, the less steadfast attention has to be paid in real life. Skipping college, Brooke moved right to Times Square and never left, as if the encompassing swirl and bustle of ever-changing people, billboards, and landscapes grounded her like a centrifuge. Brooke has snuggled into this world of immediacy, and consequently fails to see anything through. Her current obsession with starting a restaurant in Williamsburg has a Holly Golightly air of fatality to it, as if every inch of her knows that it won’t work, but to admit it out loud would be crushing. There is dancer’s grace to her movements, but it all seems a structured exercise in the persona of a proactive ideas-person, thus allowing Brooke to procrastinate on moving forward. She repeatedly talks about her mother’s death, relying on her mother and other people in absentia to keep the bubble from popping.
Maybe Tracy recognized Brooke’s natural magnetism as a selling point, let the simulacrum strip away from the signified. Maybe she had faith not so much in Brooke’s success, but in her perseverance, which is why she followed her to Connecticut to settle a score with one of Brooke’s former friends (and maybe get an investment on the restaurant). “You aren’t sarcastic,” Tracy is told early in the film, “Don’t pretend to be.” Maybe this is why she sees Brooke for what she is, which chips away at the body armor her older friend had carefully applied.
The most crucial scene is when Brooke has to sell her restaurant idea to her ex-friend and ex-boyfriend, who are now married. Transhipsters who have moved beyond the urban sprawl to a sustainable farmhouse with many expensive goats and book clubs, they have a media stage with curtains overlooking their beautiful property. They make Brooke stand there like a jester and sell herself, initially stultifying her until Tracy comes to her aid and the two concoct a sales pitch idealizing the comforts of family and home.
It is here that both women recognize each other: Tracy can be opportunistic (she is secretly writing about Brooke for school) just as Brooke can be painfully honest, but they share the same sense of individuality that will force them to “figure out how to work in the world.” Tracy sees Brooke as “romance and failure” but in the best way, which allows her to see beyond the cocoon of university and how she can command the bravery to create her own stories, regardless of status or popularity.