I’ve often complained to my friends (and daydreamed about solving the issue) of the inexplicable lack of films centered on the late teens/early twenties age; is it because the college setting is simply boring, or because liberal arts college students are all the same? Neither of those statements are true—or, at least, true enough to deter any serious creative minds—but the question remains, why is the contemporary coming-of-age story fixated on either high school hardships or those weird few years after college when your friends start to get married? Being in between these stages myself, I find myself in close proximity to the heroine of Mistress America, and all the more impressed with its surprisingly faithful portrayal of a college freshmen’s first semester. Despite the cult and commercial greatness of other recent movies set in academia like Legally Blonde (Robert Lukitec, 2001), The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010), and Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012), none of these handle the incredible material that college experiences can offer writerly types quite as well as this one does.
As the most recent writing collaboration between director Noah Baumbach and his muse, actress Greta Gerwig, the dialogue of the film is delivered so organically that at times it may be mistaken for improvisation; Gerwig corrected this assumption, however, in an interview where she stressed that the script was, indeed, followed word for word—‘likes’ and all. Not unlike Frances Ha (2013), the pair’s previous collaboration, Mistress America is highly concerned with youth, aging, loneliness, and the self-affirmation that can come from unexpected social adjustments, and both convey the mundane agony of this constant process with precision, empathy, and authenticity. When you see Tracy (Lola Kirke) eating alone at some campus bistro booth after witnessing her crush hand-in-hand with another, you can easily remember moments when you felt the same way and did the same thing, and when her soon-to-be half-sister Brooke (Greta Gerwig) says over the phone, “I haven’t eaten, do you wanna hang out?” it is not difficult to imagine a time when those were the greatest words you’d ever heard.
Perhaps it is because of the college setting, then, or its anticipated college audience, that in the end the film feels somewhat like a thesis project in itself. Heavily sprinkled with literary allusions and explicit discussions about the nature of writing, fiction, and the creative process, the film plays with the conventions of narrative and bounces through a number of genres in order to make its point—perhaps even tackling more thematic material than is necessary or effective for a standard 90-minute movie. In addition, while the film is laudable for its female-dominated cast and undoubtedly more interesting female characters (as opposed to the two variations of the male douchebag who, for some reason, everyone seems to like), when Tracy’s story is accused of portraying women poorly, I can’t help but wonder how, then, the film sees its own characters being portrayed. Even saying that, though, I begin to doubt my skepticism in favor of what I believe to be the film’s ultimate self-consciousness—“Like your whole generation, it’s all pastiche” is one of many gems in the simultaneously endearing and satirical script—and in spite of slight reservations about its representation of gender, I simply like the movie too much to overthink its undoubtedly good intentions.