“Five feet to the left and unhappy”
I’ve considered myself a sociopath for a while now, but Noah Baumbach‘s Mistress America has confirmed it. Maybe this is why I have such a love hate relationship with the writer/director’s work—it’s full of them. I guess it’s the light in which the one I align myself with most is shone that determines my reaction. Or maybe it’s whether or not he makes a concerted effort to portray the film in which they’re depicted as purposefully satirical or authentic. But even then it’s not consistent considering the two I love land on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Squid and the Whale is pure fabricated glee and Frances Ha an affecting dramedy of twenty-something doldrums. Everything in between tries for both and unavoidably ends up mean.
My hopes were therefore held in check when it came to Mistress because A) star Greta Gerwig co-wrote again like on Frances Ha and B) I really disliked While We’re Young, his last. Funnily enough this latest proves a hybrid of those two with its attempt at smugly self-aware comedy delivered with Gerwig’s iconic rhythm unfortunately being validated as real life. This is where my sociopathy comes into play because I one hundred percent side with college freshman and aspiring writer Tracy (Lola Kirke) throughout. She’s the semi-emotionless pragmatist with an effective artistic code that smartly rides approaching waves to her advantage. She cheerleads because she has no skin in the game and loves because she knows that game is rigged to supply its protagonist swift failure.
She’s an anthropologist studying society and specifically the vain, self-absorbed cypher of a human being known as her soon-to-be-step-sister Brooke (Gerwig). Tracy’s an outcast of sorts because of her sense of superiority—whether a legitimate claim or not—to those surrounding her. She’s standoffish not because she’s rude or without merit to her peers, but because she’s satisfied sticking to the fringes to simply watch life play out. So how could she not stick to a woman of Brooke’s caliber like glue? This Renaissance gal with myriad hats and façade popularity is a walking talking New York cliché of periphery success she’s unafraid to admit was achieved on the laurels of others. So enamored by herself, Brooke fascinates as an unassumingly malevolent mystery heading for disaster.
So Tracy must follow her regardless of the tenuous connection binding them as would-be kin once her mother and Brooke’s father tie the knot at Thanksgiving. There’s a wealth of material in Brooke’s actions, especially if everything she says is taken as truth—or truth through her delusional mind. Tracy writes in a fictionalized short story that this consummate New Yorker who so charmed her at first quickly devolved into borderline hysterics, but I’d argue she was the latter from the start. Not a second of conversation with Brooke goes by without her vomiting self-praise, jealous barbs, or pedantic drivel while simultaneously ignoring anything the other party wishes to chime in about him/herself. She’s obnoxious to the point that any attempt to provide empathy falls on deaf ears.
It doesn’t help that the flavor and attitude conjured memories of Adam Driver‘s abrasive boob of hipster chic Jamie from While We’re Young. It’s impossible to sympathize with a user and abuser of that ilk especially when they’ve no regard for how callous and catty they are. With that said, however, I did find a lapse in my sociopathic cynicism when Brooke’s dreams not only seem dashed but also intellectualized as the fantasies they are—flights of fancy that inspire on paper with flowery language despite having no marketability or public interest beyond the ephemeral. Here’s a girl who calls her own victim of bullying a bully and I actually felt sorry. For Brooke love is nothing but an abstract concept. It’s just how she was brought up.
Kudos to Baumbach and Gerwig for those two minutes of success because right when the moment arrived to call every single character a fraud—and for them to admit it to themselves—they decide to double-down on the vapid hubris of haughty wealth, monetary or intellectually. These monsters that care about nothing but themselves who viciously slander and attack those they supposedly love are given the gall to pile on young Tracy who merely had the unfortunate error in judgment to follow them down the rabbit hole of manufactured entitlement. To the filmmakers’ credit they have the decency to keep the teen staunchly against apologizing for her part in calling them out through fiction, but making it so we should also be angry at her goes too far.
I’m not saying Tracy is a saint or completely innocent in all that she does to Brooke, Tony (Matthew Shear), or Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) along for the ride, but she’s at least honest in her cruelty. The others refuse to acknowledge the potential that they might be mean let alone own it. And yet here we are watching them glide around the city like predators unbeholden to the consequences of their actions. They’re colored to be adored and idolized, to be seen as synonymous with New York despite projecting the Big Apple’s worst attributes as somehow commendable. The actors play into this stigma because I absolutely hated every single one of them, but to what end does the inherent message such provides approach?
Yes I laughed at Brooke’s nonplussed neighbor’s quirk with the fire escape and relished Tony’s short temper with the girl he loves, but both jokes punctuate humanity’s failings. I’m beginning to think that’s Baumbach’s goal: to make his audience hate his characters and therefore hate themselves in the process. It’s working too because even sympathetic Baby Tracy is hard to love considering her opportunism and duplicitous nature. But while I’m able to laugh at the pretentious, out-of-touch ne’er-do-wells in Squid and appreciate the honesty of those striving for more in Frances, Mistress America‘s pawns are merely despicable vessels to loath without redemption. Thankfully I am a sociopath because instead of loathing myself in the aftermath I’m able breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing I’m better than them.
 Lola Kirke as “Tracy” in MISTRESS AMERICA. Photo coutesy as Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 (L-R) Lola Kirke as “Tracy,” Cindy Cheung as “Karen,” Michael Chernus as “Dylan,” Heather Lind as “Mamie-Claire” and Matthew Shear as “Tony” in MISTRESS AMERICA. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
 Greta Gerwig as “Brooke” and Jasmine Cephas-Jones as “Nicolette” in MISTRESS AMERICA. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved