In his great, overlooked essay “The Inner Ring,” C. S. Lewis says that all people, at some point in their lives, desire desperately to be on “the inside.” How to get inside, and who is inside and who is not, are all things implied and unwritten. The ambiguity over one’s “in-ness” can cause great anxiety. And, Lewis warns, it can lead to great sin. But the desire is “one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action,” the impulse behind so much social comparison, meanness, turmoil, and, of course, advertising.
Many times the inner ring is essentially a clique; and in this sense, the desire to be in is at root a good one: friendship. Other times, the inner ring is a person. Someone whose opinions and affections hold extraordinary power over everyone they meet. Once you sense having been deemed accepted into that person’s ring, you work hard to make sure you stay inside of it—however messed up it actually is.
Mistress America is at once a zippy, reflective, and very funny film about two women: one of whom is the inner ring, the other of whom wants to be inside of it. Both women are quite lonely, but only one of them seems aware of it, at least in the beginning. Tracy (newcomer Lola Kirke) is a Barnard freshman who has been rejected by the college’s snobbish literary society. Brooke (the mesmerizing Greta Gerwig) is a 30ish ambitious NYC socialite whose newest venture is to become a restaurateur with her (never-seen) boyfriend, Stavros.
Tracy first meets Brooke in Times Square, who descends from red bleachers as if greeting Tracy from her chateau stairway. “Welcome to the Great White Way!” she exclaims, henceforth ushering Tracy into a world of parties with B-list bands and a posh apartment (in Times Square…) and stories that revolve around Brooke’s own success and how jealous of it others are. Tracy’s mom and Brooke’s dad are getting married, meaning the women are about to be stepsisters. But their relationship morphs into an unhealthy symbiosis: Tracy sticks with Brooke because it’s more exciting than sitting in her dorm room; Brooke keeps Tracy around because, as she says, “You make me feel really smart.”
Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, While We’re Young) also explored the complexities of female friendship in the 2013 film Frances Ha. As that film’s star and co-writer (and Baumbach’s off-screen partner), Gerwig leaned heavily on her innate physical comedy and spacey presence, portraying a young woman learning to stand on her own two feet in New York City. In Mistress America, Gerwig is less body and more talk—lots of it—zipping out one-liners that often hilarious but occasionally poignant. Dancing at a bar with Tracy, she blurts out, “I watched my mom die!” Over time, we learn that Brooke’s mother was sick with cancer, and that her dad became “super Catholic” afterward. After her boyfriend pulls out of the restaurant bid, Brooke’s façade of self-made success crumbles, revealing a woman who is, as she says, “in love with everything but can’t make it work in the world.”
Twice in the film someone says to Brooke, “You have a lot of moxie.” It’s a great word that captures our “YOLO” / “Do What You Love” cultural moment (at least among privileged young Americans). But as Brooke tries to pull off a desperate and hilarious bid to find the investment money for her restaurant, we see that real-world success requires much more than moxie. Very often it means trading on ideals. In an interesting turn, Brooke proves unwilling to do that. Meanwhile, showing wisdom beyond her years, Tracy knows that Brooke will fail. But in a display of surprising malevolence, she uses Brooke’s demise to inspire a submission to her school’s literary society. In a second half that every reviewer is rightly calling “screwball,” Mistress America asks whether it’s okay to use someone’s emotional pain for another’s artistic gain. But the mood is kept light with snappy dialogue, random pregnant ladies in the periphery, an apple bong (a thing I didn’t know about), and a wholly entertaining cast including Michael Chernus as Brooke’s ex-boyfriend Dylan, and Heather Lind as her nemesis, Mamie-Claire.
Like Francis Ha, Mistress America features many shots of characters alone—walking through a park, sitting through lit class, sleeping. Both loneliness and aloneness are themes that Baumbach returns to. To paraphrase CT film critic Brett McCracken, it’s as if the only constant in his characters’ lives are themselves. Yet Mistress America holds out hope for two people really connecting in friendship, even after they mistreat each other. In a brief heartfelt scene, Brooke describes her vision for the restaurant—which will also be a hair salon and art gallery named “Mom’s.” “It would feel like the home everyone was raised in,” she says. Copious amounts of bread and wine would be served to all, and if Brooke had kids, “they would sit at a table in the corner and do their homework.”
If you are jaded, this might sound like a commercial for the Olive Garden—“when you’re here, you’re family!” But if you have ever found yourself belonging to a group of people who accepted you without reserve; who really knew you and loved you in spite of your flaws; who wanted to do things together not to leave others out but to delight in and with each other out—then Brooke’s pitch might sound like the best kind of inner ring, one that knows no bounds. Which is to say, a bit like heaven.
Mistress America includes profanity, including several f-bombs, as well as a few sexually crude jokes. We see two characters smoke marijuana, and many characters drink alcohol. There is no nudity and no violence.