Film Review: Mistress America

I first fell in love with Noah Baumbach with The Squid and the Whale. I was in college and studying film, so naturally, I gravitated to the indie “scene.” I didn’t fully understand the message of the movie, but I knew that it was “good” because of the rapid fire dialogue and acting… But over the years, after I watch more and more of his films, I wonder if I was just pretending to like it because I was supposed to like it.

Between While We’re Young and Mistress America, Baumbach’s latest films, I couldn’t help but notice the pretension the characters all have. Both films center around characters who have an air about themselves: While We’re Young being about documentarians in a pissing war over their respective films, and Mistress America about who deserves accolades more; the young and naive or the lovable and neurotic?

In Mistress America, Tracy has just moved away from home to attend college in New York City. With no friends, Tracy’s mom, a wasted Kathryn Erbe (who wasn’t even credited on IMDb), suggests she reach out to her future step-sister, Brooke. Tracy decides after plunging herself into a french fry dinner, that she is ready to reach out to a perfect stranger, and thus the movie finally begins.

Brooke meets Tracy in Time Square, and we are instantly pulled into a hyper-active, ADD, fever dream of all of the random things to do in New York when you have friends and money. Brooke pulls Tracy to a club where Brooke dances on stage with the band, they go to a restaurant where Brooke makes out with a guitar player and says, “Must we document every second of our lives” when her photo is snapped, and then we are taken to her impossibly unattainable loft apartment that is in every way New York personified.

Brooke’s life is what the 1980s and 1990s depicted New York to be: attainable, affordable, and glamorous.

Tracy is studying to be a writer. (What else do you study in New York anyway?) She wants to get into the coveted Mobius Literary Club and shyly submits her first story. After not getting in on her first try, she gives it another go using Brooke as her muse. Tracy interprets Brooke’s life in a depressing way saying she is carting her youth around like a decaying carcass, and Tracy is acting as pallbearer.

While this may describe Brooke’s behavior, what is Tracy’s excuse? She follows Brooke around like a lost puppy asking if she can wait outside while Brooke tutors a young girl in math, asks if she can stay over for a slumber party, and even over-compensates buying pasta in order to get approval from the glamorous Brooke. Tracy is a child in a woman’s body with dreams of 1980s New York in her eyes.

It isn’t until everything, predictably, comes crashing down and Brooke reads the story Tracy wrote about her, that Brooke shows a chink in her armor. The situation is terribly awkward surrounded by bit-part characters with dialogue written as if it were a play acting in the round rather than a cohesive scene. But what the sequence finally reveals is that Brooke is human. She reads what others see about herself, but much like New York City, gets defensive and pushes Tracy out of her life.

I really like the idea of Noah Baumbach and his writing. It’s a call back to the 1990s mumblecore era of famed films like Slacker (Richard Linklater). But where Baumbach and Gerwig fall short is when to exit the uncomfortable and scattered.

In the scene where Brooke pitches her new restaurant idea to her former lover/potential investor and the motley crew of random house visitors, she does a physical rewind motion so she can start her story again. The silence that hung in the air after her slap-stick move made my skin crawl. This was intentional as the group even tried to elicit a false laugh. But it felt much like a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment rather than the black comedy I had gotten to know through Baumbach.

The only positive I can glean from this film is the women in film angle with Greta Gerwig at the helm. I feel like she has potential to be a good writer/actor, but she tries too hard to be different and almost an anti-heroine. Trying too hard only makes you awkward–not lovable. She’s not Zooey Deschanel.

Overall, I was not a fan of the film. Give me a reason to care about these self-centered people, and I would reconsider.

1 out of 5 stars

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