You may have heard that a new movie featuring Barnard alum Greta Gerwig, BC ’06, was recently released in theaters. We sent Daily Editor Betsy Ladyzhets to check out Mistress America and see if it’s worth you spending your money on a ticket.
In the past couple of months, there have been two movies after which I walked out of the movie theater and immediately wanted to walk back in and see the movie again. The first was, unsurprisingly, feminist action classic of our time, Mad Max: Fury Road. But the second? Mistress America.
Mistress America is a film about a college first-year who gets tugged willingly into the life of her charming, older soon-to-be-stepsister. Its claim to fame in the Columbia community is that, not only does the main character go to Barnard, the co-writer and one of the stars of the film is Greta Gerwig, BC ’06.
But don’t be misled by the summary–this is not a movie about Barnard. Sure, there’s a shot of convocation, a Sulz dorm room appears several times, and this writer practically cheered when she saw Barnard’s famous flatbread pizza make a cameo, but the majority of the film takes place elsewhere in New York. Brooke (Greta Gerwig) leads our hero, Tracy (Lola Kirke) around Manhattan, pulling her out of her college listlessness and into bars, hair salons, and spin classes. Brooke is an enthusiastic, charismatic person who can do pretty much anything she sets her mind to, but never for too long. She talks at about a mile a minute, expounding ideas for cabarets and clothing lines in the same breath. Her confidence and the excitement with which she lives her life draw Tracy in – and give Tracy inspiration for a new short story with which to potentially impress Mobius, Columbia’s (fictional) foremost pretentious literary society.
Of course, the movie isn’t all a romp through Times Square. Brooke’s latest project, a homey restaurant that is also about a thousand other businesses in one, starts to fail before it’s even been opened. A road trip to Greenwich, Connecticut is taken. Stolen cats are found and fought over. Adultery is committed. Tracy learns that writing a short story about your friend without her permission is not in fact okay, no matter how well-written that short story may be. And, despite the construction of a rather beautiful apple bong, not much weed is actually smoked.
The plot of this film doesn’t always entirely make sense, and the characters often seem to talk at each other instead of to each other. The jokes, however, are almost always on point. If you go to see Mistress America, you’ll likely find yourself laughing at everything from middle-school math tutoring to Greta Gerwig’s facial expressions to the antics of the minor characters, who include a cantankerous Connecticut homeowner who just wants peace and quiet (Dean Wareham) and a cool Manhattanite neighbor willing to let his fire escape be frequently utilized as an apartment entrance point (Kareem Williams). This writer’s personal favorite line was the astute observation that Connecticut pretty much only has trees.
Perhaps the only real gripe I have about this movie was the fact that, from the perspective of a current Barnard first-year (with the same age and even prospective major as the main character), it didn’t seem very accurate to college life here. Tracy frequently takes public transportation across Manhattan, but never complains about how expensive Metro rides are. She also both gets into a Columbia dorm without anyone signing her in and gets drinks at multiple bars without a fake. Her friend, a Columbia student, is somehow able to afford a car in the city. And, most importantly: none of the students in this movie ever seem to do any homework. When did you have time to write your First-Year English papers in between running around New York City and dragging your friends to Connecticut, Tracy? When?! (One of the friends I saw the movie with insisted that I suspend my disbelief and simply enjoy the storyline, but I couldn’t. I was simply too worried about Tracy’s grades.)
Although this film is not about Barnard, in many ways, it still feels very much like a Barnard film. At its heart, Mistress America is the story of a powerful, complicated relationship between two women. Tracy and Brooke are both strong and smart, but over the course of the movie, they learn a great deal from each other. Their relationship helps them become stronger, smarter, better versions of themselves. “Her beauty was that rare kind that made you want to look more like yourself and not like her,” Tracy says of Brooke. Learning to stand taller, speak more confidently, look more like yourself–isn’t that what going to Barnard is all about?
At one point, fairly early in the movie, Tracy tells Brooke a little bit about what her college is like. “The Columbia women all want to make us feel inferior,” she says. “Which is, like–I already do.” To which Brooke replies, “That’s stupid. Don’t feel inferior.” And, by the end of the movie, Tracy definitely doesn’t – she starts a new, less pretentious literary society, and invites Barnard and Columbia students alike. For all of you new first-years here on both campuses, “Don’t feel inferior” is a pretty great piece of advice. Someday, you, too will strut across a stage with all the confidence Greta Gerwig possesses today. And, if you have fifteen dollars and a couple of hours to spare, go see Mistress America. It’s too real in the best possible way.
Greta Gerwig via Shutterstock