Mistress America is a story about love, deception, greed, lust, and unbridled enthusiasm – all intangible qualities that could be applied as easily to Brooke, the cockeyed optimist to which the title of the movie refers, as easily as they could be applied to America itself. But don’t do it. Don’t make Brooke into a symbol for the United States of America. She wouldn’t like it, and it wouldn’t be true anyway. Making Brooke into nothing more than a symbol will lead to your downfall.
The affably manic Brooke, played by the interminably likable Greta Gerwig, is looking for the thing that will bring the many disparate threads of her life together. She thinks that is a restaurant, though she does not cook, and mainly seems to want a place where her charm can be given full reign (and will prompt others to give her money in return). I’m not sure what they’ll serve at this restaurant—probably plate of idealism and glasses of good will— but I know they’ll sell European snacks and cut hair in the lobby in the mornings, according to Brooke.
Forgive me. This movie isn’t about Brooke. She’s a supporting character, but one so ebullient it’s often difficult to pay attention to anyone else. The true protagonist of Mistress America is Tracy, the ambitious Barnard College freshman played by Lola Kirke. Tracy, like Brooke, is trying to figure out who she wants to be in life (a typical college-aged problem), and she things she might want to be like Brooke who is a decade or so further along in the process. Or if she doesn’t want to be like Brooke, Tracy certainly sees Brooke as a gateway to the kind of person she wants to be. Tracy uses Brooke as a kind of shortcut to escape the mundane work of getting a liberal arts education just as Brooke uses others to shortcut her way to success.
And all of this is very funny, and especially so as more and more amenable people are gathered into hurricane Brooke’s swirling mass of ill-conceived ambition. The second act of Mistress America is as fun a time as I’ve had at the movies all year, with more and more characters showing up to comment on the impending climax and intersperse side-plot one-liners than in a Thanksgiving episode of Friends. This is sharp, quick, clever comedy with real substance to back it up and characters you want to see come out of it all in a positive way.
Once again, Brooke, Tracy, and their acquaintances aren’t avatars for America—the short-sightedness of simplifying people to fit our needs is kind of the point of the movie—any more than any of us are. In other words, they are and they’re not. They’re products of their culture in the same way we all are, and their dreams and faults are typical of people living now in this place and time. Self-focused ambition that hinges on being attractive to others was the theme that stood out the most to me, and that’s probably because I’m as prone to chasing that fantasy as the characters in the movie are. I’m an American coming-of-age in the early 21st century too. “You have to market yourself,” Brooke says, “Otherwise people won’t know what you’re selling.” “The more I’m bought, the less I cost,” sang Joe Pug in my head in reply in a narrative voice that always makes me think of Jesus.
This need to define oneself to market oneself to sell oneself is a nasty cycle, isn’t it? It encourages us to reduce ourselves to a single, sellable quality, to deny the messy, infinite complexity of our God-breathed humanity, and to look to do the same to others. A better way would be to root our identities in having mercy and compassion on ourselves and on each other, to laugh not at our foolish ambitions but at our always surprising, unpredictable personalities, to cheer the unfolding of our spirits as God continues to cut and refine us into the fully human people we were created to be. Not products – people. People who are gracious with and generous to each other, people who love each other and forget ourselves, people like Christ.
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