Noah Baumbach has carved a unique niche for himself as a maker of fictional movies that double as socio-anthropological studies. If his films were shot on a documentary quality film stock or low-quality digital format and stripped of the scenes more common in feature films, they could easily be shown to other cultures as documentations of people of a certain age, place and time.
In the case of his latest, the delightful Mistress America, the place and time is modern NYC and the subjects of his study are 20-somethings and one very entertaining 30-something. Tracy (Lola Kirke) attends college and when her mother, who is soon to be married, suggests she reach out to her future stepsister, she calls Brooke (Greta Gerwig) and the night the two spend on the town makes an impression on Tracy. Tracy is in awe of Brooke’s lifestyle. She is enlivened ay her enthusiasm and the passion flowing from her. She begins to reflect this. Tracy also starts writing a short story featuring a thinly veiled version of Brooke in hopes of having it published in a campus literary magazine, thereby gaining acceptance to a revered society of writers.
Tracy is not exploiting or taking advantage of Brooke and her relationship the two have. The story is out of genuine fascination. Brooke’s goal of opening a restaurant is especially exciting to Tracy and is of significant detail in the story. As enamored as Tracy is, it’s not long before she realizes Brooke’s image as a successful, cosmopolitan woman is more of a projection of who she wants to be than who she is. As the two spend more time together, Baumbach presents some of the anthropological elements through observing his subjects. These observations come in the form of hilarious lines and character traits. After Tracy says something Brooke finds insightful, Brooke says she’s going to shorten it, punch it up and turn it into a tweet. In another exchange, Brooke asks Tracy to make coffee in the apartment and after Tracy says she doesn’t know how, Brooke harshly tells her not to be so incompetent, and that if she spent a matter of seconds with the coffeemaker, she would know how. That comment is amusing and telling because it highlights a dichotomy in Brooke. Brooke is ambitious, but she’s not quite diligent enough to follow through on her ideas.
The comment also is one of Baumbach’s observations of millennials who are often viewed by older generations as being pampered and spoiled. There may be some truth to this but Brooke seems to show that some may be aware of this and dislike it in themselves, projecting it onto others. Millennials aren’t the only group examined by Baumbach’s script. In one of the film’s longest sequences in a single setting, Brooke, Tracy and some acquaintances visit a potential investor in Brooke’s restaurant to lobby for startup capital. The home is a spacious, modern residence in an upscale area. Tracy comments on how beautiful it is and says “When you live in the suburbs you have to really like being in your house.”
Like Lena Dunham, who writes about similar disaffected millennials on “Girls”, Baumbach’s treatment of his protagonists is endearing and critical. Brooke may be ambitious, but she still has a lot of improvements to make before her goals can become reality.