Staff Writer Kyle Turner reports live from the Provincetown International Film Festival with a review of Noah Baumbach’s latest, Mistress America.
On the rather shiny surface of the last few Noah Baumbach films, it seems that, as I posited in my review of While We’re Young, he’s lightened up a bit. But maybe he hasn’t. Maybe, instead, he’s just found a different way to spin the existential dread he feels. In Mistress America, he is as melancholic as he is zany, his writing partner and muse Greta Gerwig acting as both a beacon of light and perhaps a projection for those anxieties. A nervous “what if”, had Baumbach not reached the indie stardom he has.Lola Kirke is Tracy, an alien to the world of normal collegiate socializing. Her freshman year begins as a rather miserable plod from one class to the other, from one place to another, and without much direction. A chance at romance is squashed. She is rejected from the literary society. She then, at the behest of her mother, calls her soon to be half-sister Brooke (Gerwig) and, to reuse the old cliché, her life is turned upside down.
It’s clear that Baumbach’s camera is enamored of Gerwig, as she illuminates the screen as no one can. It actually feels like the films color palette lightens to a pastel shade. The rhythm of the film, which was at first at a pleasant walking pace, starts to run, as if to keep up with Brooke. Each cut feels at once decisive and at a jog: Gerwig truly has a magnetism that’s rare, and the film, as does Tracy, wants to follow her wherever she goes and however she goes, even at breakneck speed.
And, to be fair, she is almost like a modern Susan Vance, the ditsy protagonist of Howard Hawk’s similarly fast paced Bringing Up Baby, but perhaps the love child of Vance and Gerwig’s previous Baumbach protagonist Frances Ha. Brooke is as self-assured and confident (“Do you know what an autodidact is? Well, that’s one of the words I self-taught myself.”) as Ms. Vance is, but she’s as secretly plagued with anxiety and insecurity as Frances is. But unlike Frances Ha, we look on from afar, experiencing this world through the eyes of Tracy. So we never get those quiet moments of, for instance, Frances turning over in her after a fight with her best friend, looking into the mirror, bed unsure of the future. We do, however, get Tracy going to a previously visited psychic, telling her what she already knows: she doesn’t know who she is. And neither does Brooke.
Several people have observed that Frances Ha was a rather sad film, but it was cleverly masked by its nouvelle vague aesthetic and sense of humor. In Mistress America, a similar technique is used, this time evoking Hechtian screwballery, but Baumbach and Gerwig allow their cards to show a little more. It is much more transparently melancholic, and though the laughs come fast and furious, there’s a more obvious feeling that they are illusory and transient. There is a terrible loneliness and dread that’s in the film, and that is never really alleviated, but for the better.
It is refreshingly honest about the disappointments in life, and, furthermore, about the things we do to distract ourselves from those disappointments. Brooke’s paradoxically go getter/lackadaisical persona makes for a bad cocktail when it comes to trying to realize her dream of opening a restaurant/hair salon/community center (this lack of focus alone speaks multitudes). And it seems odd that one would tell such a dour story, basically warning this younger woman that life is going to suck. But, as aforementioned, its honesty about that is commendable.
Treating Frances Ha, While We’re Young, and Mistress America as a kind of triptych is useful: the films are about aging and the reevaluation of one’s life choices and the results of them and they are about the impossible loneliness we all feel when having to make those decisions or reevaluations. With these injections of real, raw sorrow, Baumbach reveals himself to be more a(n acerbic) descendant of Lubitsch than of Hawks.
I once spoke with Noah Baumbach about his writing process. He told me, “It’s horrible, you know, you’ve got this blank screen and you’re starting with nothing. And it seems impossible every time. And I convince myself it’s impossible every time, that I have to get through that. I never feel as if I’ve inherited the confidence from the last one. I just start again, totally amateurish.” That insecurity of feeling “amateurish” is starkly present in the three films, and Mistress America stings like an open wound as much as it is able gut punch you with a bellowing laugh. Its cinematography is as frantic as its dialogue, but its emotion is grounded in a world where even when you do your best, things can still end up in pieces, regardless of your age.