On first glance, all three of Noah Baumbach’s most recent and most popular films come across as nothing more than your typical romantic comedies, which is not entirely inaccurate. Frances Ha (2012) deals with a woman learning to love herself, While We’re Young (2015) focuses on two different couples and their relationships, and the most recent, Mistress America (2015), can be described as a platonic romance between two friends and prospective sisters.
Mistress America tells the story of Tracy, a short story writer and freshman at Barnard who struggles with fitting into the social scene at her new school and turns to Brooke, whose father is engaged to Tracy’s mother. In Brooke, Tracy finds an embodiment of everything she perceives New York City to be. Tracy says, “being around [Brooke] was like being in New York City.” Brooke is a symbol of youth and a life lived for unattainable goals. She lives without attachment to any one person or creed, living the life, as Tracy puts it, “that everybody wants.” Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script and plays Brooke, brings a very real life to her character without pushing the melodrama of Brooke’s life too far. She is hilarious and dreamlike, but never quite unbelievable.
Tracy becomes enamoured with her future sister, going so far as to write a short story about her, using the name of a superhero Brooke created, “Mistress America.” The story is one of both adoration and mocking. She attends the spin class Brooke teaches, waits outside the house while she tutors a child, holds her coat as they walk up the stairs to her apartment in Times Square. She also indulges in a fantasy that Brooke believes is within reach—opening a restaurant. Brooke is completely devoted to her imaginary store, diner, and hair salon: “Mom’s.”The breaking point in the story comes when Brooke loses her boyfriend’s financial support and so must journey to Greenwich, Connecticut, with Tracy; one of Tracy’s only friends, Tony; plus his possessive girlfriend, Nicolette, to look for a new source of funding, a trip which turns out to be disastrous for Tracy and Brooke’s friendship.
Although advertised as a screwball comedy, it is obvious that the sole purpose of “Mistress America” was not laughs, but a message on imitation, as well as the struggles of creating art and aging gracefully. Tracy both looks up to and pities Brooke but wants nothing more than to live a life like hers, which, she finds, she cannot do and retain her own singularity. At the same time, Tracy uses Brooke’s life as an inspiration for a short story that receives considerable merit, yet ultimately faces the consequences of this imitation.
It is also a story, like While We’re Young, on age and on the end of youth. In While We’re Young, an older couple comes to the realization that they are no longer as young as they once were when all their friends begin to have babies. Upon discovering this fact, they attempt to imitate the behaviors and attitudes of another younger, more spontaneous couple, also with detrimental consequences to their well being and careers. In Mistress America, as well, Brooke is led to the realization that she must move out of New York City to point her life in a different direction, symbolizing the end of her youth.
Mistress America, like the premises of all Baumbach’s films, is not what would come across as uplifting, but rather a story in which everything goes wrong. In the end, however, the audience comes away with a nuanced impression of youth and its brevity. Characters may not be successful in holding onto their youth in a traditional sense, but they find themselves content with the present. 5/5