I so loved Frances Ha, that I was delighted to find out that Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach had collaborated on a new film. And that this film (Mistress America) was opening on the very day I had booked as annual leave. I detected the hand of Zeus and the Fates and booked myself a ticket.
Mistress America tells the story of New York newbie and college student Tracy, and her soon to be step-sister and established girl-about-town, Brooke. Tracy is an easily intimidated, shy, and somewhat lonely teenager, whereas Brooke is a thirty-something who knows where the cool places are, hangs out with the cool people, and gets to join the cool band on stage. But she’s not just some effete lady hipster, tweeting and instagram-ing her life away. Brooke teaches spin classes, tutors school children, and has aspirations to open her own restaurant. Tracy meanwhile just wants to be published in her college literary society magazine. Mistress America is focussed around the relationship between these two somewhat unlikely friends and almost step-siblings; with Brooke injecting some much needed excitement and glamour into Tracey’s world, and Tracy bolstering Brooke’s hopes and ambitions for her life as a restaurateur. However things start to break down when Brooke becomes the literal inspiration for Tracy’s writing, and accusations of betrayal start flying around.
This may not seem like a plot that lends itself to comedy, but Mistress America is full of knowing and gentle humour, as well as some more manic laughs. A supporting cast of dorky students, ex-friends and lovers, random neighbours, and a tax attorney, add plenty of opportunities for Tracy and Brooke to be sweet and accidentally amusing. In Brooke we have an excellent encapsulation of the eternal optimist, ready to do whatever it takes to achieve her dreams, however remote a possibility they are starting to look. And Tracy is a ready foil, always happy to bolster and support Brooke’s ambitions (while possibly also furthering her own).
I really enjoyed this film, but it’s pretty obvious that if you didn’t like Frances Ha, Mistress America is not going to be for you. I can see that for GerBach detractors, the New York of artisanal coffee houses, social media, and industrial chic living smacks of self-indulgence and is frankly somewhat annoying. But I loved it. Brooke also had the potential to be incredibly irritating, but I actually found her ready warmth and acceptance of Tracy very endearing. And Tracy is more than just a naive ingénue. She treads a fine line between genuinely loving Brooke, and seeing her as excellent source material for her writing. In fact there were elements of the relationship which reminded me of Nick and Jay “The Great” Gatsby. This film is also the first I’ve seen which effectively captures the phenomenon of acknowledging someone way too early, thus resulting in much smiling and awkward arm-waving as you have to walk down the street for several metres before actually meeting. It’s those sort of details that I really liked. And any film which can get away (just) with the line, “I’ll just refresh our screwdrivers“, is alright with me.