BAILEY T. STEEN | MONDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2018
Mistress America is the great entrepreneurial idea —the renaissance woman of idolisers, overwhelmed with creativity, armed with hip-fired opinions too fun to protest (regardless of their objective falsehoods), invigorating the lives of the 99% as their hopeful muse.
In the 1920s, this hopeful figure took the form of a literary male icon. Another Manhattanite, in fact, also of the blonde and lavish variety. A man who frequently boasted of his own “valour extraordinary” — followed by another star-struck writer friend keen to learn of his success, only to later unravel his underlining doom. In a comedy of the old-school sophistication era, director Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Mistress America is the modern form of The Great Gatsby —now told through the carried away perspective of dear Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke), an ambitious, graceless 18-year-old literature student overwhelmed by her new New York City life, pulled into the splendour of America’s spiritual capital by the prestigious Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig), a 30-year-old multi-skilled freelancer, soon to be her step-sister by marriage, from whom Tracy finds adoration. The pair become instant confidantes, weaving through the underground of delightful hipster-dom with Tracy the ear to her newfound idol — the perfect character from whom she draws inspiration. Tracy’s writing, once an unfocused chore, starts to evolve effortless, using Brooke as the basis of her own short story jewel, Mistress America, based on the title Brooke once had for a TV show about an independent female hero that never came into reality (like all of Brooke’s great ideas — it’s all just words without follow-through.)
To steal a phrase from fellow film critic Willow Catelyn, who drew a comparison between this film and another Baumbach-Gerwig cinematic darling in 2012’s Frances Ha —the words “I’m not a real person yet”, became less of a characteristic of the central character Frances, a day-dreaming aspiring dancer in an economy unwilling to enable dancers, and more of a definition of a generation of day dreamers. Tracy knows there are few jobs for writers out there — as the staunchly conservative Gavin McInnes once said, “liberal arts should just be called a barista degree” — yet she still chases the New York dream regardless.
I, myself, am privileged to have found a humble entry into paid political-cultural writing, followed by my own debts, unfulfilled ideas doomed to failure, masked with a cheery presentation from yours truly — and this is the reality Tracy sees in Brooke. Mistress America, from the wistful student to the scatter-brained entrepreneur, is a film about the day dreamers, handicapped by the harsh wave of the economy crashing towards them, and braving those waters regardless.
As Gatsby’s confidante Nick Carraway said:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
They may be “doomed” to repeat their failures, a word used by Tracy describing Brooke’s debt-filled desperation and her inability to follow-through into profitable realities, but it’s a welcomed doom. It’s a struggle expected to be bared by the authors and restaurant owners who try to juggle it all — baring it with a mask of smiling hope that’s perhaps more authentically them than the saddened faces that lay underneath.
The writing of Baumbach and Gerwig is a perfect blend of heightened reality, giving us incredibly witty set-pieces and lines so cinematic in presentation, while balancing the quasi-religious truth of their character’s journey — nailed to the cross, suffering their failures and striving forward anyway. They’re a wonderful writing pair, Gerwig as Baumbach’s symbol of hope as they trudge through such a melancholic situation that, throughout almost the whole film, left me with a grin from ear to ear. Those with the fear of the unknown will find a scary fate awaiting Brooke and Tracy, but they’re strong women, superheroes even, destined for that beautiful green light.
Thanks for reading! Bailey T. Steen is a journalist, editor, artist and film critic based in Victoria, Australia, but is also Putin’s Puppet™ on occasion.
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Cheers, darlings!! 💋