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Mistress America

August 21, 2015
Mistress America

Two years ago, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig dug into that awkward, hazy transition between young-adulthood and, well, full adulthood in Frances Ha. Now they’re back with Mistress America to take another pass at that same time of life, but from a slightly different angle.

Of course, they can probably make an entire career out of these films. The coming-of-age story exploring the transition from teenage years to adult life has been in many ways thoroughly picked-over, almost certainly because the people going through that change are a prime demographic for the film industry in general, and who doesn’t like to see themselves on screen? That’s not to say that the bildungsfilm has gone totally stale; there are plenty of stories left to tell about kids who fall outside the predominantly white, suburban norm that Hollywood usually targets.

And even within that well-trodden ground, the stories have changed along with society. As young-adulthood has emerged as a distinct phase of life, the changes protagonists are expected to make have shifted a bit. But other than Baumbach and Gerwig, filmmakers have generally left the other end of this new stage alone. St. Elmo’s Fire — the one earlier film that comes, thematically, to mind — is about recent college graduates, even though by now it’s hard to imagine people in their early twenties being so well-established.

Like Frances, Brooke (Gerwig) is reaching a point where her current lifestyle is becoming untenable. Unlike Frances, Brooke at least appears to have her life together. We see her mostly through the eyes of Tracy (Lola Kirke), her soon-to-be stepsister who has just started college in New York City. From her perspective, Brooke’s life seems amazing and romantic, a fun-loving extrovert living in New York City who seems to know everybody and has Big Plans.

But even Tracy can tell how flimsy Brooke’s position is. Living in a space that’s technically not zoned residential sounds quirky and daring when you’re just out of college and can ignore the risk of suddenly being locked out. The restaurant Brooke wants to start sounds amazing when she’s just throwing around ideas, but there’s nothing in her plans about the hard, boring work of actually running a business. Her exuberance is infectious and exciting, but it’s only going to take her so far.

Most people have at least some of that sort of spirit when they’re younger, but we all grow out of it sooner or later, and usually before our lives come crashing down around us. Brooke holds onto it longer than most, even pushing the bounds of credulity. Baumbach and Gerwig did much the same thing with Frances and her own unwillingness to confront the realities of adult life. In both cases, it throws the tensions they explore into sharp relief, while at the same time helping keep the mood light and faintly ridiculous.

Of course, we’re catching Brooke at her breaking point. When the restaurant plan is in trouble, she — along with Tracy and two other kids from her college — heads out to the tony suburbs, trying to scrounge up money from her ex-boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) and ex-best-friend Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). The extended sequence at their house, which forms the heart of the film, could almost stand alone as a one-act screwball comedy in the old Howard Hawks mode. The script is lean and fast, with precisely-timed lines going off like firecrackers against each other.

And that’s the perfect style for this story, because it’s the way Brooke lives her life. Half a dozen things are going on at once, all at high speed and crossing over each other unexpectedly until you can barely keep on top of it all as it careens ever more wildly. And eventually there are just too many things to keep track of everything and youthful exuberance won’t carry you any further. Things come to a screeching halt, and then you have to pick up, look around, and start again. This time a little older and wiser, and maybe with a more realistic plan to go forward.

Or maybe not too realistic. We’re still young after all, right?

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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