How ‘Mistress America’ totally nails female friend infatuation

Like many of the characters she plays, there is something irresistible about actress and filmmaker Greta Gerwig.

In person, she is smart and funny and incredibly charming. She gives thought to every question, and expresses herself in a way that is entirely her own. I’ve now seen her speak twice: Once at the New Yorker Festival in 2013, and last week, at the HelloGiggles screening of Mistress America.

The film — her first collaboration with co-writer/director Noah Baumbach since 2013’s Frances Ha — follows the story of Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman finding her way in NYC, and her soon-to-be-stepsister Brooke (Gerwig), a confident and carefree thirty-something in love with life. At its core, the film is about a very particular kind of relationship between women: One of mutual infatuation and admiration and obsession and respect. It’s a relationship not often shown on the screen — and Mistress America tackles it perfectly.

“I think, in Frances, I wanted to look at a long-term best friendship, suffering under the changes that come in your late 20’s,” Gerwig said at the HelloGiggles post-screening Q&A. “And with this movie, I wanted to capture that moment of just utter infatuation with a girl.”

Her co-star Kirke seems to relate. In an interview with Time, she said, “Women perform for each other and seek out the admiration of other women. . . And I think that is the essence of Tracy and Brooke’s relationship.” Perhaps most literally, Tracy is a bit of a kleptomaniac, and occasionally pockets Brooke’s possessions — which Gerwig describes as a physical manifestation of that desperate longing to “own” someone you love.

“I think I’ve felt that way so many times. I’m still prone to feel that way when I meet someone,” Gerwig said at the HG Q&A. “They don’t even literally have to be older than me, they just seem to have to know more somehow. [Tracy] sees everything that’s wrong with [Brooke]. She sees all the cracks in the facade, but she loves her anyway. [It’s] just that moment of like, ‘Oh my god, this person! This girl!’ You just can’t imagine ever wanting to hang out with anyone else.”

Mistress America takes its inspiration from screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s (e.g., Bringing Up Baby), and ’80s movies where one character seems to drag the other into a world of sin. (In this case, the “world of sin” seems to be downtown Manhattan.) As a result, everything in the film feels like an exaggeration — but it still remains truthful.

In fact, the film is hard to watch at times because it’s so uncomfortably familiar. Brooke is ambitious but indecisive; Tracy is naïve and a little selfish. Each of us knows these women — because we love them and hate them and become them in turns. When Ben Lyons, the Q&A’s moderator, expressed that he wasn’t sure if these characters were the absolute best or the absolute worst, Gerwig responded, “Likability doesn’t really concern me. I love characters that are spiky; that are not totally one thing or another. And I like flaws that aren’t adorable. I like flaws that are, actually, kind of upsetting.”

And at times, both Brooke and Tracy can be very upsetting. These women are flawed, and not always likable — but this is part of what makes them human and relatable. The character of Tracy is supposedly close to a teenage Gerwig: They even dressed Kirke in Gerwig’s clothes from when she was 18 (“. . . apparently a lot of giant blazers and berets. I don’t know why I thought that would look appealing to anyone. But that’s what I was doing.”).

Of course, while there are pieces of Gerwig in the characters she writes, she is neither Brooke nor Tracy (nor Frances, for that matter), and it would be a disservice to her talent to say so. The biggest disconnect between Gerwig and the characters she’s written, in fact, seems to be Mistress America’s Brooke; but there is definitely a certain intimacy and optimism to both. When an audience member asked Gerwig how she used to cope with moments of darkness before she was a successful actor, Gerwig laughed — and her answer unintentionally nailed Brooke’s plight in Mistress America.

“I had a dark moment yesterday,” she said. “I think the times where I’ve felt not great, correspond to when I thought something else should happen that doesn’t happen. I feel like a lot of times you’ll think, ‘Ah, if I just get this one thing, then everything else will just fall into place, or it’ll be easier.’ But I don’t know that that moment ever happens.”

“I guess it’s like a lesson that I have to keep relearning,” she continued. “There is no magic door.”

The film is the product of good writing: The dialogue in Mistress America feels incredibly organic, and Gerwig is quick to clarify that there isn’t any improv in the film. Since Baumbach doesn’t like to do a ton of rehearsal, the cast would end up doing about fifty takes per scene.

The film is a labor of love, and it shows. Like Frances Ha, Mistress America very much passes the Bechdel Test — but also like Frances Ha, the Bechdel Test doesn’t even come to mind. The movie is simply a story about two women and their adoration for one another; and it makes us wonder why seeing these stories on the screen isn’t more common.

Mistress America is about female friendship infatuation, but it’s also about loneliness, and finding your place in the world, and growing up. While writing this piece, I forgot to put quotes around something Gerwig had said — and it took me until the end of the sentence to realize it wasn’t something I’d written. This, for me, is the appeal of Gerwig and her work: They give words to our most intimate thoughts and make us feel less alone. And lucky for us, Gerwig has no intentions of stopping her personal projects anytime soon.

“I’ll do other things, but not if it interferes with my weird talkies about women,” she told HG.

Mistress America comes out in select theaters August 14.

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(Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight.)