Being a beacon of hope for the rest of the world is a lonely business.

Being a beacon of hope for the rest of the world is a lonely business.

 

In the midst of the latest film by Noah Baumbach, our heroine declares that there’s nothing she doesn’t know about herself (adding, that it’s the reason why she can’t submit to therapy). True to form, she usually seems to be exactly where she means to be, carries herself with a kooky confidence, and is perpetually in motion. The funny thing about a person like this that eventually it must be asked if they know themselves so well, is whether all those strong personality traits are meant to sell their strengths or hide their weaknesses?

MISTRESS AMERICA begins by introducing us to Tracy (Lola Kirke). During her freshman year at college, Tracy is struggling to fit-in, alternating between awkward encounters and feelings of isolation. During a phone call home, she describes the experience as being at a party where you don’t know a soul.

Her first lifeline comes by way of Tony (Matthew Shear), a fellow english student who is cut from a similar cloth and encourages her ambitions of writing for the college’s most prestigious periodical. They seem to have a curious chemistry, which gets thrown for a bit of a loop when Tony suddenly starts dating Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

Her next lifeline comes during a call home, when her mother suggests she rally up with her stepsister-to-be, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). The two have never met, but their parents are about to be married and they are both reading at the wedding, so hey – why not? One awkward phone call later, Brooke and Tracy are hanging out.

Brooke is a bit of a force of nature. She never seems to shut up, has sixteen different ideas going on at any one moment, and seems to do a bunch of things pretty well instead of doing any one thing exceptionally well. When she meets Tracy, her greatest ambition is to open a restaurant that’s too high-concept to describe. She has a plan and a storefront, all she needs now is backers.

While following Brooke through the streets of Manhattan to concerts, parties, and dinners, Tracy soon starts to think she is getting a grip on this scatterbrained woman who will soon be part of her family. She uses her as the inspiration for a short story to be submitted as a new application for the periodical; one that is highly critical of Brooke and her entire demeanour. However, despite the judgement, she remains supportive of Brooke’s ambitions and even follows her upstate to pitch a couple who she used to be friends with on the business model.

What remains to be seen is whether Tracy sees Brooke as an example, or a cautionary tale.
The Short Story

 

MISTRESS AMERICA shows a lot of guts in the way it introduces Brooke. So much about her attitude and demeanour basically beg you not to like her. She speaks in phrases that seem specifically abstract (“I’ll probably end up doing something depressing, but young”), and seems image-conscious to a fault. A lot of her abrasive kookiness is right there in her introduction – on the red stairs of Times Square. Not only does she get her stepsister to meet her in the part of New York most New Yorkers avoid at all costs, but she takes the time to climb the steps so she can descend them dramatically when Tracy arrives. If you started talking to her at a party, you’d be looking around the room for your friends inside of thirty seconds.

It takes a lot of guts to introduce a heroine this way, so if nothing else writers Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach deserve high marks for huevos.

What we eventually come to think about is the sorts of armour we all decide to step into. On the surface, we might like to believe that we just “are who we are”, but the truth is nowadays we all feel stronger using a certain side of ourselves as a front. We might feel most well-defended coming across wealthy, or stylish, or trendy, or smart. Inside we could be a mixed-up, self-conscious mess. Brooke might seem like a flighty twit, but at least she is firmly entrenched in her armour; Tracy is still searching for hers and as-such, feels far more vulnerable to the environment around her.

MISTRESS AMERICA then raises the question; is it better to wearing armour that is obvious and contains several chinks, or not have any armour at all and critique everyone else for theirs. It’s easy for Tracy – and for us – to judge people like Brooke who seem one rejection away from crumbling. But if we’re honest, how often are we in that exact same position? How many times do we look at our two generation old phone with a shattered LED and desperately scroll for distraction from our insecurity?

Is it just easier to be the person sitting on the couch while the hot mess makes her financial pitch?

Exploring this question is what makes MISTRESS AMERICA succeed, and becomes the rainbow at the end of that opening storm of trendy millennial chatter. It broadens out the scope of the story and turns into something much more multi-generational. It calls us all into question, no matter how successful or mess-up we may believe we are. It makes us consider our roles as friends, family, partners and providers. Are we handed our roles, or can we actually choose them?

This question is apparent in the relationship between Brooke and Tracy. They aren’t sisters by blood, and aren’t even yet by marriage…and yet between them we see both the idolization and protective nature that does come with sisterhood. That’s a choice both women make, and roles that will make both of them better people.

So maybe there’s something to that; the same way we choose our armour, so too can we choose our role.

 

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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