As a 37-year-old, I can’t help be slightly amused by a 30-year-old passing off sage advice and life lessons to a group of college freshmen. This derision has nothing to do with the astuteness of the advice given, mind you; I’m sure my sheltered existence gives me little room to judge the sagacity of others, no matter where they are in life. No, this mild scorn comes more from the sense of entitlement that arises from age, as if the experience meter in the RPG of your life gains points simply from each breath you take. I’m older so I’m smarter. Just like there’s a guy ten years my senior out there who thinks I’m a dumbass because he’s ten years my senior. Perspicacity accruement through temporal longevity: it’s as human as abstract reasoning and opposable thumbs.
Thanks to this his innate refusal to accept any wisdom of the young, Mistress America became a struggle for me over whether or not I vehemently hated Greta Gerwig’s Brooke, an upward-reaching uber-hipster who, at 30, thinks she’s the next great New York City success story. Brooke’s a magnetic, manic dreamer, a solipsistic social butterfly who views self-awareness more like an annoying mosquito to be swatted away rather than a critical tool of emotional development. She’s a font of advice and guidance, a cornucopia of how to make it in the modern world. She’s transfixing and troublesome, hilarious and heinous, both the best and most exasperating part of director Noah Baumbach’s latest collaboration with Gerwig.
Yet Mistress America ostensibly isn’t about Brooke. Not entirely, at least. It begins as the story of Tracy (Lola Kirke), an 18-year-old freshman English major at Barnard University who’s having trouble adjusting to college life. Not I-wanna-go-home-now difficulty, but that weird awkwardness of not knowing who to hang out with or where to go, of feeling left out and about five minutes behind everyone else (a concern she voices to her roommate in a statement I swear I myself uttered a half-dozen times during my own freshman year.) Overwhelmed by school and feeling friendless, Tracy calls up Brooke, the daughter of the guy her mom will be marrying over Thanksgiving break. And suddenly, instead of being alone and lost in NYC, Tracy finds herself sucked into the nonstop, up! up! up! whirlwind life of her soon-to-be older stepsister.
The two hit it off instantly. Tracy gets a role model, and Brooke gets the baby sister she always wanted. (She almost immediately begins referring to Tracy as “Baby Tracy.”) Tracy starts to experience the “real” New York, and Brooke finds a willing sycophant, a starry-eyed young protégé to absorb all of her insight. Yet Tracy eventually starts to see what we do—that Brooke’s belief in her own ability to do anything isn’t quite grounded in reality, but desperation.
This transformation from queen-of-creation to anxiety-addled prole straining to succeed is why Brooke becomes such a fascinating character—she forces us to reexamine our own prejudices against her. Brooke lives like life is a sack of Cheetohs and she’s trying to gobble every last speck of cheese dust, an affront to those of us who can’t look at the bag without worrying about the calories. We all know someone like her—not quite to the same turned-up-to-11 level of egocentricity as Brooke, but in the ballpark—and we’re all likely of the same schadenfreude whenever we see them fail. But Mistress America refuses to let us enjoy Brooke’s unraveling. Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote the script, brilliantly turn the tables on the audience, making Brooke into an empathetic figure, someone whose vanity isn’t a sign of evil but an endearing flaw. Brooke’s aloof self-centeredness—example: she complains at parties of the need to document every moment of modern life, yet herself is a near-obsessive devotee of Instagram and Twitter—becomes her armor, her unbreakable spirit. Yeah, she’s overbearing and careless and infuriating, but who are we to take that away if it’s what gets her by? Not to say she’s won me over by the film’s end—far from it—but at least I wasn’t seething with comedic rage towards her as I was the first five minutes she’s onscreen.
If only Baumbach and Gerwig had tried to be a bit more adventurous with how the story is told. Mistress America unfolds in the tried-and-true three-act rom-com formula (not that the relationship between Brooke and Tracy is romantic, but the film gives it the same mechanics), and the result feels a bit predictable in its arc and pacing. I wish Mistress America had been two separate films: one about Tracy’s first semester, and one about Brooke in New York. It’s a testament to the strength of the first fifteen minutes that I find it more compelling than the madcap romp of the second half. Sure, both parts are good—hell, the whole thing’s good—but as soon as Brooke appears the film becomes less about Tracy’s growth and more about watching whatever kooky shit Brooke will do next. I’ll put it this way: I feel guilty that I’ve spent an overwhelming majority of this review discussing Brooke, when Tracy is an amazing character as well. But, you know, Brooke….
But these are minor complaints; after the rest of this summer’s offerings, it’s nice to see an R-rated comedy that gets by on actual humor rather than genitalia references and poop jokes. Baumbach and Gerwig have crafted an unsuspectingly deep comedy, a movie that works both as screwball silliness and an examination into fear of failure and the overlooked astuteness of the young. If only they were a bit older, so the film could contain a little more wisdom. They really should’ve had an octogenarian give the script a pass. Might have been the most prudent movie of all time.