Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Mistress America, is an unexpected delight first and foremost for the abundance of laugh-out-loud moments and the many quotable lines delivered in Woody Allan-esque, rapid-fire sequences.
A classic “coming of age” story set in New York City, it follows Tracy (Lola Kirke), a freshman and social outcast at New York City’s Barnard College who finds herself captivated by the seemingly glamorous life of her soon-to-be 30-year-old stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), only to become disillusioned by the fact that Brooke’s life isn’t as “together” as it appears.
What makes this film particularly brilliant, however, is its ability to capture – with a rare, authentic awareness – both the exhilaration and lamentation of the endless career possibilities available in today’s world of entrepreneurial pioneers.
Admittedly, part of my enthusiasm stems from having lived in New York City for the past three years – a city I have come to know well, where ambition is not just a prevailing attitude, but a means of survival.
It is Greta Gerwig’s character that embodies this so humorously (and with pointed relevance), as we learn that Brooke – who radiates an infectious energy and charisma inherent in the city itself – is a freelance interior designer, high school tutor, Soul Cycle instructor, all while attempting to secure investment for a restaurant she envisions as a “community shop, general store, bodega”-like place called “Moms” where “it will always feel like Fall inside” and where you can eat, take cooking classes, “but also where you cut hair.”
Brooke is, as Tracy narrates, “kind and fearless,” someone who “spent time purposefully”; “Being around her is like being in New York City…[making] you want to find life, not hide from it.”
Indeed, to say that she is the ultimate “go-getter” – not to mention a seemingly confident, independent and bold woman (“there’s nothing I don’t know about myself, that’s why I can’t do therapy,” she says) – would be an understatement.
“I think I’m sick and I don’t know if my ailment has a name,” Brooke says to Tracy toward the end of the film, explaining that she has been “staring at the internet and TV” for hours on end, followed by bouts of excitement for various ideas she has, but doesn’t know how to implement.
“I just can’t figure out how to work in the world,” Brooke finally states. “I wish we lived in feudal times, when your position couldn’t change…if you were a king or peasant, you had to be happy with just who you were.”
Brooke’s momentary romantic reflection on the feudal past and the simplicity inherent in a concrete social hierarchy of kings and queens, princes, princesses and peasants – where one’s days are not spent on an arduous quest for self-definition – is one of the more poignant moments in the film. She becomes fully and painfully aware of her whirlwind quest of “how to work” in a world where anyone can invent, reinvent, define and redefine themselves on their own terms and in their own way.
“I’m going to be worse off now than before I started to accomplish stuff,” Brooke says at one point.
Such freedom for invention and reinvention is certainly liberating, but as Baumbach captures so astutely, it can also be severely, detrimentally paralyzing.
“The world was changing,” Tracy narrates at the tail end of the film. “And her kind had no where to go.”
Where should I go? What should I do? Who should I be? These are all questions that we confront in life, which is partly why this 84-minute journey with the character Brooke is highly entertaining and relatable.
Indeed, as a young woman in one of the biggest cities in the world, where I step out my apartment each morning energized by knowing I can do and be anything, it gave me a bit of solace to know that I might not be the only one trying to “figure out how to work in the world.”
Mistress America is currently playing in New York City’s Landmark Sunshine Cinema. Watch for its DVD release on December 1, 2015.