Everyone knows the classic storyline in which an awkward protagonist ends up feeling betrayed by the unique newfound friend who gave said awkward protagonist a new confident outlook on life, because that friend, who had been overly idolized, makes an asinine mistake. What this film presupposes is: what if the newfound friend was never overly idolized and what if the awkward protagonist is the one who makes the asinine mistake?
Mistress America is a film that defies any simple genre classification. Sure, it’s certainly a comedy, highlighting the humor in perfectly ordinary situations, exaggerating and laughing with the characters at the small everyday blunders everyone makes. (Panicking over what type of pasta to buy for a casual gathering is one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year.) At the same time, the film is keenly aware of the brokenness and hurt that small acts of selfishness cause, acts which most people don’t even think about. Consequently, it takes a sobering dramatic turn, which briefly threw me for a loop, even though the more I think about it, the more perfectly that turn ties the film together.
Tracy (Lola Kirke) is our awkward protagonist, who desperately wants to be accepted into the cool lit-club as she begins her freshman year at college in NYC. Shy enough not to get invited to parties, confident enough to fall asleep in a twelve-person class, and self-conscious enough to be overly guarded around anyone she wants to impress, Tracy seems like a fairly typical college student: fairly intelligent yet anxious and lost regarding to how she fits into the world.
Brooke (Greta Gerwig) has no qualms about how she fits into the world. As she haphazardly descends into Tracy’s life (literally, that’s Gerwig’s first entrance), she inspires the fledgling writer with a passion for life and confidence in her abilities. The two are soon to be step-sisters, as Tracy’s mom is marrying Brooke’s dad, and they bond better than many sisters, as Brooke unreservedly welcomes Tracy into her life, showing her the city and the odd collection of jobs she works, all the while dreaming of opening a restaurant.
Brooke’s happy-go-lucky lifestyle is naturally perfect for Gerwig’s effervescent screen persona, even going so far as to reference one of her repeated quirks from Frances Ha with an easy to miss cameo. However, small cracks appear in the world which Brooke has constructed and which Tracy eagerly accepts. None of Brooke’s grand plans ever seem to come to fruition. All of her money is precariously tied up in the restaurant, which could fall through at any moment. An old high school acquaintance of Brooke runs into them in a bar, and her bitterness at Brooke’s past teasing of her clearly reveals real hurt, even as Brooke downplays the incident and refuses to apologize for something she barely remembers and doesn’t really believe was wrong.
At the same time, Tracy is careening down a path which will soon place her in a similar situation to the one Brooke was in with her former high school acquaintance. Tracy may be enamored of Brooke when around her, but when she writes her short stories (inspired by one of Brooke’s failed ideas) she’s acutely aware of Brooke’s imperfections and unhesitant to dramatize them. The result is a scene familiar to any film about a budding friendship, yet played out from an unexpected point of view, humorously providing more than one side to a multitude of characters.
As Tracy reads her story via voiceover, the story highlights the aspect which Brooke and Tracy share, which makes their friendship so natural and believable, as unexpected and unusual as it may be. Both of them try to fit into the world both as it is and as they want it to be, aware of its imperfections, yet overlooking their own, believing that they have the power to change it through a story or a restaurant even as they let other aspects of their lives fall apart. The desire to cast oneself as a superhero, saving the world on the side like a “Mistress America,” is a folly which I think is fairly common. The reality is other perspectives exist all around us, and we often chose not to perceive them, and the consequences of our selfishness are funny and sad, but only because we recognize how we have messed up and how we have an opportunity to do better.
Throughout all the screwball shenanigans Mistress America maintains whimsical tone, finding humor in both joy and sorrow. It may not quite be the masterpiece that is Frances Ha, but it is another great film from Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, proving them to be one the best writer-director teams working today.
Personal Recommendation: A