“Mistress America” – The Screwball Millennial Comedy

Noah Baumbach’s uncanny portrait of my generation is a modern screwball comedy masterpiece. Most movies about millennials obsess over portraying young adults often consumed with the terror of becoming “real adults.” The characters in all of these movies are too many times white & upper middle-class and while that can irk me to no end, there’s a potential universality in the story and emotions some filmmakers and tv showrunners often strive for but almost never do (see, Lena Dunham’s Girls or Gia Coppola & James Franco’s Palo Alto). The idea of someone clinging to the protective embrace of college and the college-life mentality like a life preserver in murky open waters shouldn’t be so specific to one view. Somehow filmmaker Noah Baumbach & actress/writer Greta Gerwig found a way to transcend that despite surface-level trappings that peg it as yet another well-off white liberal arts kids movie. Much like their last collaboration, Frances Ha, they hit that elusive universality in the tale of new college freshmen forcing themselves into worrying about what they should become that they hardly have time to be themselves. And all of this juxtaposed with a character who embodies the best hopes and worst fears weirdly associated with my generation.

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(From Left to Right) Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig, Matthew Shear, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Heather Lind in “Mistress America” (2015).

Baumbach, a Gen-Xer, perhaps due to collaborating with his partner Gerwig, a millennial, dampens his cynical and jaded bite in favor of a manic screwball energy that has more in common with Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot) or Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday) than it does any of his previous films or coming-of-age films in general. The movie begins at a light jogging pace as Tracy (newcomer Lola Kirke, looking and sounding like a miniature Linda Fiorentino) crushes on the first boy she meets (Matthew Shear) and pines for acceptance to a pompous (but prestigious) writing club, but it’s not until her late 20s/early 30s soon to be step-sister Brooke (Greta Gerwig) enters the picture that the film takes flight.

Greta Gerwig & Lola Kirke in
Greta Gerwig & Lola Kirke in “Mistress America” (2015).

Brooke and Tracy are perfect foils: Tracy is paralyzed into indecision by the limitless offers of her new life and privileges, and Brooke–a restauranteur/designer/musician/tutor/SoulCycle instructor who is more than well-sustained by the sheer number of her freelance occupations—has seemingly made all of those choices at once. As they get into a few misadventures that are actually a joy to watch as opposed to the post-irony plaguing most teen & young adult fiction, Tracy ends up secretly using Brooke as a subject for an essay to get published by that club she likes. As I mentioned before, Brooke is pretty much everything people love about my generation (the boundless enthusiasm, imagination, charisma, potential and jack-of-all-trades approach to education) and everything they criticize (an almost solipsistic self-centeredness, lack of focus/commitment, unrealistic worldview and precociousness etc). To some people, Brooke may be a cautionary case and to others she’s almost the ultimate muse able to bring out the best in others. Either way, unlike most generational portraits, the film can’t help but love Brooke and Tracy even as it criticizes them.

Lola Kirke & Greta Gerwig in
Lola Kirke & Greta Gerwig in “Mistress America” (2015).

Ultimately the film is less concerned with redeeming any of its characters or growing them into someone’s definition of “better” people (although it does) than it is with exploring how people think and interact through what we borrow from around us. It giddily denies the idea that people should live for the need for outside validation and extrapolates what it means to define one’s self in an era where social media allows people to broadcast their thoughts and supposed achievements so widely that every phone and computer doubles as an EKG machine for self-worth. Sure it’s not a “new” or groundbreaking message for the coming of age movie, but Baumbach and Gerwig apply it to its chosen subject matter better than any of its peers.

Greta Gerwig & Lola Kirke in
Greta Gerwig & Lola Kirke in “Mistress America” (2005).

Mistress America certainly travels down those oft-repeated roads of broken trust and acceptance of reality, but it does so with a manic delight that’s wholly unique. So-funny-it’s-true jokes, visual gags, pratfalls and zingers rule out a bunch of 18-30somethings sitting around talking (lecturing) us about “life.” Unlike a typical Baumbach film, the movie is straight-up funny rather than uncomfortably so. Even the side characters get to be in on the fun like Tracy’s lit class chums, a pregnant tax lawyer/book club member and musician Dean Wareham dressed and coiffed to look like the best “Connecticut rich guy” among many others too good to spoil. Most movies about Millennials seem to be either indictments or drenched in painfully obvious nostalgia and Mistress America avoids both through its sincere empathy for its characters.

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(Clockwise from left) Cindy Cheung, Dean Wareham, Matthew Shear, Michael Chernus, Heather Lind and Greta Gerwig in “Mistress America” (2005).

Mistress America is about trying to understand these groups instead of confronting them. To see the merits of what they have to offer the world even if they don’t “fit” into outside definitions of success and life. Even if there’s a sense of arrested development or immaturity about these folks, there’s perhaps a different kind of value to that. Brooke and to lesser extent Tracy approach levels of “hot air,” alleged-delusion and self-centeredness that definitely make them inevitably hateable to some but thanks to the filmmakers, we never lose site of the good. It’s thanks to the charm of the actresses behind them that we never lose empathy. And it’s thanks to the skill of the filmmakers that even though none of the characters or what happens on screen represents me or my personal experiences exactly, I could still relate and see myself there somehow. Mistress America is almost obnoxiously energetic but it’s a testament to the performers and filmmakers (and perhaps the slapstick-editing and 80s style syth-score) that it leaves you buzzing. There’s a character-based wit and charm missing from the coming-of-age movie that’s present here and most of all, Mistress America is a very funny movie that manages to be both honest and kind. As The Big Chill was to baby boomers, Reality Bites to Gen-Xers, Mistress America is to Millennials.

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