I've seen Greta Gerwig in exactly one movie (this one), and I've seen her directorial debut Lady Bird, and I've decided that she's amazing. This is aided of course by an amazing script which was partially written by her, partially by the director Noah Baumbach, which is full of dialogue that is simply fun to listen to. Mistress America has a similar protagonist to Lady Bird in a way, a young girl who's just barely an adult, trying to figure out who she is and trying to make her way in the world, but I think it's primary message is one of disillusionment, both with others and with ourselves. It's the kind of film that's simply about people being people, and because of that is incredibly comfortable to just sit and watch.
Tracy (Lola Kirke) and Brooke (Greta Gerwig) are soon to be step-sisters, living in New York. Tracy is a college student who is persuaded by her mother to contact Brooke, so they can get to know each other a little bit before their parents become wed. She's reluctant to do so, but once she does, she instantly becomes infatuated with Brooke. Not infatuated in a romantic way, but she instantly becomes taken with Brooke as a person. Within one night, Brooke has become her idol. She's this cool, 30-something living in New York who knows everyone, has a boyfriend in Greece, has a nemesis, has a cool apartment, has an overwhelming number ambitions and ideas, and to an 18-year old girl like Tracy, she's everything she wants to be. At first glance she's an absolutely wonderful human being, the kind of person that makes you feel better about yourself because they actually like you. Tracy becomes wrapped up in Brooke's life, always agreeing with her, always on her side in any argument, following her around the city on all her endeavors, just hoping that she can somehow leech a bit of talent off of this woman for her own. This is an experience I think most of us can relate to, at one point or another we become incredibly impressed with a person older than us, so sure that they're what we want to be when we "grow up", and Mistress America does an excellent job at channeling that feeling. Greta plays this character with such natural style and grace, you'd think that this was just someone pointing a camera at her being herself.
The key to this film though, and why it's such a joy to watch, lies in the dialogue. There really is a wonderful feeling to be had simply from listening to well-written dialogue. It's how Aaron Sorkin is so well known, he is simply an excellent writer, and here the combination of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig writing really lends this movie what it needs to stand out. There's a single scene I'm thinking of in particular, where there are 7 people all talking amongst each other, but it's incredibly fluid. There's no wasted silence, no tripping over each other to speak, everyone has their line that they say and it just sounds and feels marvelous. There's something to be said for movies doing their best to emulate realistic dialogue, but sometimes we just want to sit back and hear people talk in a way that no one actually talks. We sit there and think "God, what a great line, I wish I could talk like that", and it's just comfortable to listen to. That is what is achieved here, every line is stylish, clever, funny, and true all at the same time. Rather than distance us from the movie like some filmmakers would use this to do, it actually works very well with what seems to be the core conflict of the movie, which is that no one is as cool as they think they are, or as cool as they appear. In everyday life, Brooke is quick-witted, ambitious, and funny as hell, but in important or key moments, suddenly her wit has left her. She can't seem to find the words to say the things that need to be said, and because of this, ultimately fails to achieve all her empty ambitions. Once words give way to action, we find that all the stylish talk was simply that, talk. Brooke is as taken with her own persona as Tracy is, and like Tracy, she wants to be the woman that she presents to the world.
This is the second part of Mistress America that I think a lot of people can also relate to, the eternal struggle of actually being as happy, smart, successful, and cool as you present yourself to be. It can be very easy to impress people with the right words and a well-timed phone call with someone cool, but when people begin to expect you to follow through with these claims, panic can set in. Like Brooke during her key pitch, very suddenly and very worryingly, we have nothing to show. The flashy presentation and the witticisms all give way to a person that's just as afraid as everyone else. Brooke's charm morphs into something else over the course of the film because of this. She's still cool and funny, but it becomes more concerning once we see her trying to live in the real world. There's a line written by Tracy in the film, which sums up this feeling completely: "Her youth had died and she was dragging around the decaying carcass". Brooke hasn't grown up. She's living the life of a 20 year old with the confidence and experience of a 30 year old, she's playing a character and trying to be on everyone's side at the same time, hoping people don't notice. What once made her seem cool now makes her seem desperate and out of touch, trying her hardest to impress people younger than her, because everyone her age has settled down and can't stand the way she acts. It's a balancing act between responsibility and ambition, and in the end Brooke ultimately can't keep it up. She ends the movie by leaving for LA, a place where she hopes to find some new people to impress for a bit while she tries her hardest to actually follow through on her plans this time. It's a very bittersweet bite of reality for both Brooke and Tracy, but even in the end both characters have enough charm to them that what is a sad moment for them isn't necessarily one for us. It's simply a logical end to their character arcs, a time that they'll both hopefully use to grow, and something that we as the viewer can hopefully learn from.
All in all, I loved this movie much more than I expected. As I mentioned, the dialogue and directing were both done so well that it's simply designed to be entertaining. I've both heard and read that Frances Ha is an even better done version of the movie (same director, same writers, and with Greta in the role of main character this time), so I look forward to watching that. For now, I've already got Mistress America in my Amazon cart, because I think it's going to turn into the kind of movie that I can watch over and over, for whatever various reasons I need to at the time. Mistress America is an experience, one that will leave you better off than where you started.