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Fate Can Be Cruel: Mistress America

Updated on September 12, 2015

Two women whose parents plan to marry get to know each other in Mistress America. Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is a college freshman in New York who hopes for a career as a writer. Her mother, Stevie (Kathryn Erbe), plans to marry a man when Tracy comes home for Thanksgiving break. Stevie, in the meantime, suggests Tracy meet her fiance's daughter, Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig), who also lives in New York. Brooke's over ten years older, but, like Tracy, still trying to find her place in life. Brooke has all sorts of ideas, the biggest of which is to open a restaurant with the friendly and welcoming atmosphere she herself likes to convey. She has investors, including her musician boyfriend, who loans Brooke her share of the money for the project. She takes meetings to get the business in order, but then loses her boyfriend and his backing. Brroke soon consults a spiritual adviser, with Tracy joining her for this meeting. He tells Brooke to revisit a part of her past so she can go forward.

Brooke takes that message as a reason to visit her ex-fiance, Dylan (Michael Chernus) and his wife, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), who have become successful in business and moved to Connecticut. Brooke wants Tracy to tag along, but neither one of them owns a car. As a result, Tracy convinces her writing friend Tony (Matthew Shear) to drive them there. He brings his girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas-Jones) with him. With a little difficulty, they arrive at Mamie-Claire's residence as she concludes a class she conducts for expectant mothers. Brooke claims Mamie-Claire took an idea of hers and made it her own - and profited. Mamie-Claire concedes some parts of Brooke's claim with some claims of her own. Brooke wants the money she feels is owed her to move forward with her restaurant. Dylan soon comes home, listens to Brooke's pitch, and offers Brooke the money she wants - with one important condition. Meanwhile, Nicolette gets hold of a story Tracy has written to try and gain admittance to her college's literary society, which was based on an idea of Brooke's. Everyone in the house hears the story, then they critique it with the knowledge that Brooke inspired it. A hurt Brooke, though, learns one more bit of bad news while at the house.

Mistress America marks the third collaboration between director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig. In this effort and their previous joint effort, the 2012 picture Frances Ha, Gerwig also wrote the script. Both deal with a woman about thirty living on a budget and trying to live her dreams within the constraints of her reality. It seems Herwig's Frances got the message, but not so much Brooke. Yes, Brooke was wronged by Mamie-Claire, but Brooke also has to make some more practical decisions. Tracy gets to see what she might become in ten years, but she also gets free lessons in her craft, and how to treat friends and acquaintances with a little more sensitivity. She learns that many students at her school want to be a part of the writing society that looks for material from them, and finds the quest for their best efforts can lead to heated situations. The story of Tracy's foray into higher education is more interesting than the one of Brooke's dealing with dreams that almost always end in disappointment. Tracy seems more willing to learn from experience than Brooke.

As a result of the writing, Kirke, whose best known previous credit was a small role in Gone Girl, steals the show as Tracy. She wants to write for a living, and appreciates any sort of recognition she can get. Her time with Brooke, as fun as it sometimes is, shows her that any support network, like any good time, only goes so far. She wants belonging and acceptance, provided those attributes allow her to be her own person. I don't dislike Gerwig as Brooke, but she, like Seth Rogen, hit the same notes with their onscreen personas. Even though Brooke has to access her locked apartment though a sympathetic neighbor with access to a fire escape, she still lives with the feeling that the world revolves around her. She has so many creative irons in the fire, but so little reward - and little clue that her ideas do not interest others very much. I also liked Lind and Chernus as the successful couple who have differing opinions about helping Brooke. Cindy Cheung is also amusing as Karen, an expectant mom and attorney whose ride home is very late, and gets subjected to all the debate Brooke brings, as well as the short story Tracy has written.

I suppose the title Mistress America refers to people like Tracy and Brooke, who work so hard at making their dreams come true, they can lose sight of the reality of the pursuit. Many seek big-time recognition, but few achieve it. Most people come to accept that the dreams they want for themselves often remain dreams throughout their lives. The dreams might be pursued while making a living, but these people realize that dreams aren't the only part of life. Two young women follow their dreams, but in this mixed bag of a film, one needs to stop dreaming so much, and take responsibility for her choices. The question remains, though, if expericence has given Brooke Cardinas enough hard lessons.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Mistress America three stars. Don't trust the mistress to care.


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