Who would have guessed that we might start to recognize a distinctive “Greta Gerwig” style of cinema?
Filmic sensibilities are an odd and difficult thing to define, but we know them when we see them. Woody Allen has a distinct sensibility and so does Martin Scorsese…and those two are in no way similar. Some films—whether tied to their namesakes or not—are easily catalogued as Capra-esque or Hitchcock-ean. And pretty much anyone who sees more than one movie a year can spot a Quentin Tarantino movie before the opening credits are done rolling.
But Greta Gerwig?
Indeed, the indie actress-cum-screenwriter has emerged in recent years as an idiosyncratic cinematic voice, with her latest film, Mistress America, a minor-though-charming addition to her growing and impressive filmography.
Mistress America, which Gerwig stars in, co-produced, and co-wrote with director and best beau Noah Baumbach, is an unexpansive meditation on loneliness, narcissism, and the cult of (failed) ambition. And, like much of Gerwig’s most personal work to date, it delights in the struggle of a generation desperate to find its place as it comes to terms with the twilight of youth and the dawn of adulthood.
Tracy, played with compelling angst by Lola Kirke, is a lonely college freshman, an eager fresh face in New York City. She dozes off in class. The school literary society rejects her. And the boy she’s crushing on finds another girlfriend. Not an auspicious start to the rest of her life. But on a whim she calls up Brooke, her soon-to-be stepsister, who is ten plus years her senior, lives in Times Square, and leads an impulsive and adventurous city life. Tracy’s mom is marrying Brooke’s dad, and although the two girls have never met before, they immediately bond…and Tracy’s whole existence transforms from still-life black-and-white to full-motion Technicolor.
Theoretically, this is Tracy’s story, but the movie—like everyone who comes in contact with her—is drawn to and fueled by the ultra-charismatic Brooke.
Gerwig writes and plays Brooke as a narcissistic force of nature: a whirlwind of egocentric observations, insights, schemes, and dreams. She survives on pure brute force of personality, living off of a combination of odd jobs and utilitarian relationships. And despite a nearly clinical case of self-absorption, Brooke appears to be the only one in her orbit who fails to see that—regardless of her magnetism—she is completely and utterly doomed to failure. She fails see it, yes, but you get the sense that deep down she is beginning to suspect it.
Regardless, Brooke is madly in love with Brooke, even though Brooke is the kind of person who would absolutely hate Brooke if she wasn’t actually Brooke. But maybe that’s how we all really feel about ourselves.
Gerwig’s cinematic baptism has come at the altar of filmmakers like Whit Stillman and Baumbach himself, and it shows in her scripting of Mistress America. And that’s not a bad thing. Though less self-conscious—but dramatically warmer—than movies like Metropolitan or Damsels in Distress (which Gerwig starred in, as well), Gerwig the writer shares a talky, erudite style with Stillman and Baumbach. But her earthy, human moments are significantly more impactful and resonant.
When Anna, a forgotten high school classmate, approaches Brooke in a bar and confronts her over an episode of emotional bullying from years gone by, Brooke is bewildered. She dismisses Anna’s condemnations with a casual, callous rebuke, and then later laughs off the incident and catalogues it as a story to share with friends.
Or maybe just a tweet.