There’s a scene roughly 20 minutes into Noah Baumbach’s 2015 film Mistress America where Brooke (Greta Gerwig) takes her younger step-sister to-be Tracy (Lola Kirke) to the restaurant she is planning to start. The shutter anticlimactically opens up to reveal an empty, echoey series of rooms. But as Brooke walks through them, she tells Tracy about her vision for the place and it gradually blossoms into life in our minds. “It would be like a community center and a restaurant and a store, all in one… It would be the place that you, like, love to be.” Tracy is whisked away in this vision, thrilled by Brooke’s passionate explanation and the restaurant’s nostalgic name: “Mom’s.”
In a later scene, Brooke pitches the restaurant to her former boyfriend and potential investor Dylan (Michael Chernus). She stammers nervously and fidgets awkwardly as she tries to explain it again: “It’s a restaurant… but also, like, where you cut hair. Can I start over?” Brooke finally gets her time in the spotlight, her potential big break to finally realise her dream, and she chokes.
These two scenes perfectly capture everything about Brooke Cardinas. On first impressions she appears supremely self-confident, delivering a seemingly unlimited stream of entrepreneurial ideas and pithy witticisms that Tracy quickly falls for. Brought together by the imminent wedding of Tracy’s mother and Brooke’s father, Brooke is everything that Tracy, an insecure, rudderless college freshman, aspires to be: driven, wildly-passionate, and unstoppable. A resident of Times Square (where they first meet, Brooke stretching out her arms to yell “welcome to the great white way!”), she is the kind of person who becomes the center of attention in any situation, a confident modern American woman who always appears both one step behind and ahead of everyone around her.
Carrying the mantle of the awkward, impressionable protagonist that Jesse Eisenberg first channeled in Baumbach’s autobiographical The Squid and the Whale, Tracy appears to be the perfect wingman for Brooke. She instantly feels out of place when she arrives at college, telling her mother over the phone, “You know the feeling of being at a party but you don’t know anybody? It’s like that, all the time.”
As she sits alone in a diner in an early scene, the echoey sound of Paul McCartney’s “No More Lonely Nights” playing from the speakers, and finally decides to try ringing Brooke (after much encouragement from her mother), it feels like a ray of hope in her life, the start of something new, something that college has failed to deliver. When Brooke first takes Tracy out to meet her friends, Tracy sits in quiet awe as Brooke dominates the room and complains about social media (“Must we?” Brooke complains when someone tries to snap a photo of her).
But the more time Tracy spends with Brooke, the more she realises that maybe this is all too good to be true. Just as Brooke’s vision of Mom’s begins to fall apart, so too does her confident persona and can-do attitude. As she throws around other half-baked ideas like writing a TV show (titled… Mistress America) or freelancing as an interior decorator, it becomes clear that none of these dreams will ever be realised. As Brooke tells her father later on, “Don’t just bail! That’s what the Cardinases always do.”
When Mistress America was first released, there were a number of reviews that dismissed it as Baumbach’s lightest, most surface level work and criticised Gerwig’s performance as being “overplayed” and “artificial.” It was an understandable reaction considering Baumbach had largely traded in close-quarters dramedies up to that point, like The Squid and the Whale and While We’re Young, which focused on awkward, relatable characters rather than broad-stroked, larger-than-life figures. His most lauded film previously had been 2012’s Frances Ha, a portrait of the free-wheeling, fragile Frances (again played by Gerwig, Baumbach’s creative and life partner), which powerfully tackled the uncertainties of life as a twenty-something.
In Frances Ha, Gerwig had brought an extraordinary vulnerability and lust for life to the character of Frances. But if that film announced her arrival on the scene as a major new talent, then Mistress America made a bigger statement by proving her range. Although Brooke is initially presented as a more boisterous, almost caricatured, character than Frances, Gerwig and Baumbach break down her performative nature to tackle her real vulnerabilities, rounded off with the suggestion that maybe Tracy and Brooke aren’t so different after all.
Crucial to understanding this is an early scene in which Tracy and Brooke are in a trendy bar talking about Brooke’s parents. In many ways it’s the typical image of an upmarket New York establishment, the buzzing hum of chatter from the tables of people, the upbeat music from the speakers. It is a setting that’s typical of the film, a casually romanticised view of New York in the vein of Manhattan, When Harry Met Sally…, or any number of other classic films set in the city. In contrast to Frances Ha’s crisp monochrome palette, everything here is brightly lit and warmly shot, the soft lights of the city and Brooke’s apartment not only playing into the traditional view of New York but also helping us fall under the spell of Brooke’s contagious charisma.
But just as we are being whisked away in Brooke’s train of thought, a woman appears at their side, asking if Brooke remembers her from high school. It’s an initially friendly exchange, indicating they used to be good friends. But it suddenly turns frosty when she tells Brooke “you really hurt my feelings” and reminds her of the way Brooke used to taunt her at school. Angered by Brooke having forgotten this, she tells her “I just wanna say, fuck you. The way you treated me really messed me up for a long time… You made a lot of people feel bad.” Brooke replies, “I feel sorry for the thirteen year old girl who was you, but I don’t feel sorry for you now.”
It’s an extremely uncomfortable scene that ends with the woman leaving in tears. It is the first time we see Brooke’s facade really knocked out of shape, something that will happen repeatedly throughout the course of the film. Delivered with Baumbach and Gerwig’s trademark fast-flowing dialogue that often overlaps from line to line to create a frantic bundle of energy, the sequence is an early blow to Brooke’s blustering character and suggests that maybe she hasn’t moved on from her teen years as much as she’d like people to think.
By suddenly being confronted by a figure from her past, the idea of Brooke as a mature, sophisticated figure that Tracy can look up to is thrown into jeopardy. As the film progresses, Baumbach and Gerwig slowly chip away at Brooke’s idea of being a force to be reckoned with to reveal her fragile, volatile, late-adolescent heart. Brooke’s rivalry with her ex-best friend Mamie-Claire always devolves into a childish, empty feud filled with vague accusations (“Mamie-Claire stole my ideas and my fiance… then she LITERALLY stole my cats,” Brooke rants), eventually spiralling out of control when, on their trip to ask for Dylan’s investment, Brooke storms around Mamie-Claire’s house while hurling out childish retorts like “you are so annoying when you get calm voice!”
Brooke and Tracy initially seem like the perfect case of opposites attract, Brooke bringing an energy and determined drive that Tracy has previously been lacking. But this dynamic gradually falls apart, leaving us with the suggestion that perhaps Brooke and Tracy are far more similar than we first thought. Brooke’s continued ignorance about her flailing position in life and lack of change since her adolescent years, hanging out with young people like Tracy and her college friends to escape from these failings (“always running with the young crowd” as Dylan says), places her almost exactly in the same life situation as Tracy.
Both anxious about their future and afraid of living a directionless life, we realise that Tracy and Brooke are facing very similar fears. Ultimately, this is really what ties them together and cements their close bond. If The Squid and the Whale tackled the turbulence of late adolescence and Frances Ha dug into the uncertainty of life as a twenty-something, then Mistress America seems to suggest that the anxieties of college life are actually not so different from the fears that come with entering your thirties.
But at the film’s conclusion, the message is ultimately a hopeful one. Brooke announces she’s decided to go to college (an experience she previously missed out on), which suggests she’s finally recognised that she’s been stuck treading water for too long and needs to seek a new start. Tracy also makes changes for the better, repairing her close friendship with Tony (Matthew Shear) and rejecting the snobby writing group that she was so desperate to be a part of: a defiant move signalling her determination to pursue her passion for writing outside of the realm of elitist college societies.
In the film’s final shot, the camera pans out as we see Brooke and Tracy sharing a meal in a restaurant and Tracy delivers the final lines through voiceover: “She was the last cowboy – all romance and failure. The world was changing and her kind didn’t have anywhere to go. Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.” It’s a perfect conclusion that captures all the many bittersweet reflections contained within these two characters and the relationship that they shared. Brooke’s dual role as a guiding light and cautionary tale for Tracy throughout the film ends up leaving Brooke with the realisation that maybe, instead of being “a beacon of hope” for others, it’s finally time to face her own future.
It’s an important lesson, one that leaves us with the realisation that maybe Brooke was just as in need of a helping hand as Tracy ever was.