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The Master of Childish Men Gives Women a Second Chance

Fox Searchlight Pictures

When a film about young women comes out, it's tempting to compare it to other films or TV shows about young women. (Is this the movie version of Girls? Is it Girls for grown ups? Girls in the South? Girls in space?) It’s equally tempting to assume that each piece must be attempting to speak for All Women, or at least those of a certain generation. Despite the grandeur of its name, Mistress America, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s latest film, attempts no such statement. Instead, it’s a comical and loving depiction of both female friendship and the pains of growing into yourself—and that's all it needs to be.

Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is an 18-year-old Barnard student struggling to adjust to college life. After she’s rejected by a literary society and by the guy she—and the audience—are led to believe is The Boy, Tracy hesitantly calls up her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig) on the off chance that Brooke can show Tracy a good time.

Outwardly Brooke, a 30-ish woman, seems to be living the dream. She sings with a band, teaches Soul Cycle classes, tutors middle school algebra and plans on opening a restaurant in Williamsburg. Her life is glamorous not only because of its accoutrements (silk blouses, her own apartment, ubiquitous glasses of wine) but in the way she appears to be moving through it all with ease and grace, hitting all the high marks and experiencing none of the lows. She seems buoyant and boundless but not too haughty, confident where Tracy is shy. She speaks in reflexive loops that edit the boldest of her statements and self-consciously knocks herself on the head after saying anything outrageous, letting you know that she’s castigating herself for saying something naughty but gets to say it anyways.

Brooke’s perfection is, of course, a mirage. She may be older than Tracy but their friendship—or mutual idolization—flourishes because they face similar crises of insecurity at different stages. Mistress America trades in the classic Baumbach trope of grownups acting like children, although it does so with more kindness than some of his other works. Tracy calls her mom while in a bodega wondering what type of pasta counts as fancy; her male friend starts losing a game of chess with his girlfriend and announces petulantly, “I don’t want to play anymore.” Past Baumbach characters—like Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale (2005) or Ben Stiller and Adam Driver in While We’re Young (2014)—have been drawn with more acidic strokes. They are, mostly, men so convinced of their own maturity that they belittle those who want to help them—while in reality they drink heavily, are unable to maintain relationships, and clumsily attempt to dress like the youth. Eventually, these men—or their art—are revealed to be fraudulent. There is no hubristic downfall, but there is also no upward momentum: Baumbach’s films balance on an equilibrium of discomfort, so that viewers must puzzle out how much they and the characters are better or worse off than they were at the beginning.

In Mistress America, as in Baumbach and Gerwig's previous film Frances Ha (2012), these attributes are only temporary. Immaturity has not yet calcified into a permanent trait, even at 30. Mistress America works in tandem with Frances Ha to present a triptych of young women for whom growing up sometimes seems to be one step forward and two steps back. What saves the women in these movies is their friendships. Being grown up requires not a career or kids, but a confidence in your own self that can only be found by genuinely engaging with the people around you. True friendship is a feedback loop; having good friends allows you to become a better version of yourself, and when you are a better version of yourself your friendships become deeper and truer. 

Gerwig and Kirke are an excellent pair. Gerwig’s frenetic gesticulations, noodle-y dancing and micro-expressions balance Kirke’s more sedate and measured expressions. The film crackles with spontaneity, even though the actors were forbidden to deviate from the script and Baumbach is notorious for shooting scenes dozens of times. The entire script feels like Baumbach and Gerwig’s secret notes of the things their Manhattan literati friends say, prompting laughter and groans of shameful recognition with equal measure. 

Mistress America is steeped in film tradition, with a Manhattan setting, screwball archetypes a la After Hours, and a zingy script that pays homage to Ernst Lubitsch. But it's also a movie co-written by a woman, starring women, that isn’t exclusively preoccupied with romance. Instead, the focus is on female friendship. We are plenty used to bromances, but women bonding with other women is unsual enough that over 40 percent of films in 2014 failed the Bechdel Test. Mistress America joins a spate of recent female friendships in film and TV that have helped reverse the tide: Abbi and Ilana in Broad City, Ann and Leslie on Parks and Rec, Taystee and Poussey on Orange is the New Black, and Maggie and Emma on Playing House. None of these friendships are perfect, but what friendship is? 

At its core Mistress America is not so much about finding yourself but about making yourself, and what to do when the self you thought you discovered is not very nice. This is a film about trying to write a version of reality and then realizing with time and experience that we—women, men, grownups and those not quite there—must sometimes erase and slowly redraft our selves, our relationships, and our lives.