In a current awards season climate that is becoming more and more inclined toward indie-movie recognition as well as to an increased female role in all aspects of movie-making, it would be a huge mistake to overlook Mistress America and its punchy, layered, twist-on-a-classic original screenplay.
The dramedy was co-written by filmmaker Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Frances Ha) and actress/frequent collaborator Greta Gerwig. Gerwig’s first script was 2012’s Frances Ha, a film which also almost escaped award recognition save for a Golden Globe Best Actress nod for Gerwig.
What Mistress America brings to the table is a gender role reversal story. Gerwig and Baumbach skillfully take the classic hero’s journey and cater it to a woman’s experience. The story also follows the more recent trend of breaking down the manic pixie dream role-model (I don’t think a term has been coined, yet), by which a young, inexperienced, and often “uncool” protagonist attempts to model their journey after an elusively hip and seemingly mature superior (i.e. Fight Club, Almost Famous, Thirteen, or even this year’s The End of the Tour). Gerwig and Baumbach manage to blend these two ideas to create a spectacular and modern take on the female coming-of-age plot.
The story follows Tracy (Lola Kirke, Gone Girl), an aspiring writer and lonely undergraduate who strikes up a friendship with her soon-to-be older stepsister Brooke (Gerwig). Brooke comes to represent everything Tracy wants to be as well as the perfect subject for her writing: she has a romantically dingy Manhattan apartment, flits from one cool party to another, and dips her toes into every imaginable creative outlet – fashion, food, art, etc. Her fascination turns from hero-worship to criticism and back to admiration as the many complicated layers of Brooke surface and Tracy learns a thing or two about her own life in the process.
Kirke and Gerwig have a charming and easy chemistry throughout the film which is helped along by witty zeitgeisty dialogue as well as the sweeping and whimsical metaphoric structures created from Tracy’s perspective as a burgeoning writer. In the film, Tracy likens Brooke to “the last cowboy — all romance and failure. The world was changing, and her kind didn’t have anywhere to go. Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.” The rest of the script successfully transforms this heroically grand character into someone simultaneously relatable and unattainable, i.e. the perfect manic pixie dream role-model.
Much of Brooke’s dialogue seems to be grounded in her informing the world around her. She tells Tracy, “I think I’m sick, and I don’t know if my ailment has a name. It’s just me sitting and staring at the internet for long periods of time, interspersed by trying not to do that and then lying about what I’ve been doing. And then I’ll get so excited about something that the excitement overwhelms me and I can’t sleep or do anything and I just am in love with everything but can’t figure out how to make myself work in the world,” to which Tracy replies (along with every audience member of a certain age) “I think I have that, too.” Nearly every word that comes out of Brooke’s mouth is something to hang onto, leaving us smirking and nodding our heads to lines like “I think I’ll end up doing something depressing, but fun.”
Moments in the script also have Tracy as well as the viewer questioning whether or not Brooke is deserving of this admiration, such as when we learn that she shamelessly bullied a girl in high school. Gerwig and Baumbach revel in tearing down the messy perfection that is Brooke. Is this part of her “failure” (or tragic flaw, if you will)? One point of the manic pixie dream persona lies in the fact that the protagonist will eventually discover that the person they have put on a pedestal is not everything that they seem, and is actually just as flawed as anyone else. Tracy’s own superhero name for Brooke, Mistress America, is also an indicator of the shaky complex Tracy has built around her stepsister.
Aside from capturing this complicated American Dream-y character, the screenplay also finds the essence of a coming-of-age story designed uniquely for the millennial generation. Brooke’s dream of a restaurant that is so much more than a restaurant (or Stefon of Saturday Night Live’s perfect hot spot eatery) in itself encapsulates the entrepreneurial spirit and the “give me everything at once” mantra of today’s youth culture. Mixing the millennial attitude with the throwback Wonder Years-esque narrative voice overs from Tracy also lends a pleasantly edgy familiarity to the script.
Unfortunately at this point, it looks like this endearing coming-of-age story, hero’s journey, and romantic New York City tale will be left to the silent appreciation of a few lone indie moviegoers. Sorrow not, however, as Gerwig is currently working on a new solo script called Lady Bird (for which she will make her directorial debut). Hopefully by its release, the film world will be more open to embracing Gerwig’s special talent for character and story.