Future festival-goers beware: day 4 is right about when fatigue starts to set in. When you close your eyes, you can kind of see the Sundance Film Festival bumper that plays before every movie behind your eyelids. But you've also started to lose all sense of time and space and meals and sleep. Life, as far as you know, will be a neverending cycle of watch, eat, coffee, watch, eat, sleep, rinse, repeat.
Fatigue nothwithstanding, I got myself down to the Library Theater to see Mistress America at 8:30am, and it was like a shot of caffeine straight to the bloodstream. Noah Baumbach's movies--Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale, Kicking and Screaming, Margot at the Wedding, the not-yet-released While We're Young (which I saw at NYFF and loved)--are 100% white-people-problems movies. But those problems mostly stand-in as a cipher for larger things that plague a lot of people here in the late capitalist twenty-first century, like general ennui and existential crises and family dysfunction. The fact that these problems are acutely experienced and catalogued mostly by people with the privilege, means, and leisure to do so doesn't mean they are not worth making a movie about. And Baumbach always gently and sometimes affectionately skewers his characters, which means, in turn, he lets the mirror reflect us back to ourselves, our foolish griping about our problems coming into relief.
Mistress America is his second collaboration with Greta Gerwig, the mumblecore star turned art-house darling with whom he wrote Frances Ha. This one stars Lola Kirke (who you can see in the very fun Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle) as Tracy, a college freshman at what is basically NYU, trying to figure out her way in New York—though that sounds very Girls, and this is very not. Tracy is a writer (of course) and kind of cool, but not in the way that usually works when you're 18. Her mom is getting remarried and suggests she call the daughter of her fiance, who is around 30 and lives in New York City. She finally does, and gets swept into a whirlwind named Brooke (Gerwig), a loveable free spirit with style, a pretty short attention span, and a boundless amount of affection.
I think the film can read as a fluffy screwball comedy, and at the Q&A after the film Baumbach said he had in mind the '30s and '40s Howard Hawks screwball comedies. That shows up in the rapid-fire jokes, the slightly mannered dialogue from people who are ever-so-slightly wittier than they actually would be in life, and an assortment of set pieces. But the other connection interested me more: Baumbach mentioned the genre of film from the '80s and '90s that I think of as the more lighthearted heirs to Brideshead Revisited: working-class person gets introduced into bourgeois society, falls in love with the whole aura of it, and then learns some tricky lessons. In this case, Brooke is only bourgeois in the sense that she has a nice apartment (though it's a commercial loft) and sometimes parties with the band, but she does have to work for a living, too.
Because it's an heir to Brideshead, I start thinking about the spiritual dilemma at the core of that story—who are you really in love with? and is that love actually for something beyond humans and human things?—and so a little of what Mistress America does is tap into the aching longing everyone has for life to just work, for things to be beautiful and full of love and home. And since it couches it in a very, very funny movie, I'm already looking forward to watching it again. (It's been picked up by Fox Searchlight.)
I didn't make it into my second screening, despite having a ticket—I was supposed to be seeing Going Clear, the documentary about scientology—but later that evening I was at the premiere for Last Days in the Desert, which I'd already seen back when I wrote the feature on it. I elected to see it again because the film is shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, who was just nominated for an Oscar (and has won a bunch of other awards) for shooting Birdman, and I wanted to see it on the big screen. (It's still waiting on a distributor.)
Second time around, and it was still stirring and haunting, even more because now Lubezki's lovely meditative desert vistas were much bigger. But I was still struck by the smallness of the film, by which I mean, the modesty of it, which is kind of a ludicrous thing to say about a movie about Jesus, but also possibly the best thing you can see. A movie like that isn't purporting to tell the greatest story ever told; it's just giving you a tale that you can relate to, because you, too, are a human, with a body, who gets dusty and dirty and smelly, who makes rude noises and is tempted by desires and gets tired and hungry. I like that. And from the responses I've been hearing, other people did too.
(You can follow me on Twitter, too—at @alissamarie.)