“Isn’t every story a story of betrayal?” So begins Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America. It’s a classic writer’s tale: using someone else’s life as one’s own fodder. That’s the thing with writers, they’re always looking for that one illuminating person to shine light on human nature at large. For Lola Fishcoe (Lola Kirke, of Jemima Kirke fame), that person ends up being her future stepsister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig), who unwittingly takes the eighteen-year-old under her wing upon her arrival at Barnard College in New York from suburban New Jersey.
It is at the suggestion of her mother that Lola decides to call Brooke. Although she has made one aspiring writer friend, Tony (Matthew Shear), who has also recently been rejected by the prestigious Mobius literary circle, their friendship becomes tainted when Tony takes on a jealous girlfriend named Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones)–yet Tracy was sure that Tony was interested in her as more than just a friend. Her loneliness and the constant feeling of being the only one at the party who doesn’t know anybody, so to speak, prompts her to give in to would-be sisterhood. Brooke’s anachronistic brand of “moxie” (the word is used twice to describe both Brooke and Lola by the respective men in their lives) immediately makes Tracy fall in love; not in the lesbian way, but in that distinct friend admiration sort of way that was touched on so brilliantly in Gerwig and Baumbach’s first writing collaboration together, Frances Ha.
And indeed, there are traces of the aforementioned in their latest film, particularly with regard to the adoration of a friend that reaches its peak before turning sour. The female friendship is a complicated one, after all, especially when one of them is so much younger than the other. Whether Mistress America wanted to take Lola on as her mentee or not, this is exactly the course their relationship takes, with Lola wanting to absorb Brooke’s confidence and optimism for herself. The first night they spend together is filled with Times Square lights (Brooke is adamant that it’s still the center of everything regardless of being a tourist trap) and groupie escapades (Brooke makes out with one of the band members even though she has a rich boyfriend already), all of which prompts Lola to write a story about her after their evening–one that describes her as “dragging around her youth like a dead corpse.” She titles the story “Mistress America” because of an idea for a TV show Brooke shared with her about a government worker by day who saves the world at night “or something.” It’s yet another case in point of one of Brooke’s friends stealing her ideas. Mimi-Claire (Heather Lind, who channels Blair Waldorf), for instance, is an ex-friend Brooke rails against to Lola, explaining that she stole her ideas for a t-shirt that Mimi-Claire eventually sold to J. Crew, and that, to add insult to injury, she also stole her fiancé and her two cats.
Tracy sympathizes with Brooke’s hurt, but still feels she has the most fabulous life of anyone she’s ever met. In fact, she begins spending more time in Midtown rather than Morningside Heights where her college is just so she can be around someone as vibrant as Brooke. When Lola completes writing the story about her, she resubmits it to the literary society and gives it to Tony to re-read. He is struck by how good it is, yet how cruel. He admits to her that it’s well-written, and she seizes the opportunity to finally get back at him for criticizing her writing by telling him everything that’s wrong with his.
Meanwhile, Brooke’s latest project–opening a restaurant in Williamsburg–has fallen through after her boyfriend revokes the funding he gave her upon seeing a picture of her kissing that band member on the internet (proving Brooke’s point, “Must we document everything? Must we?”). Distraught, she goes to her spiritual advisor with Lola, and is told that she must seek the money from an old enemy. They interpret this to mean Mimi-Claire, who now lives in Greenwich, Connecticut. Because Tony has a car, he is enlisted by Lola to drive them there; his untrusting girlfriend also joins in on the ride.
Arriving in Greenwich, it’s clear that Mimi-Claire is having problems of her own whilst in the middle of hosting a pregnant woman’s book club in spite of not being pregnant herself. Her husband, Dylan (Michael Chernus), shows up later on to stir the pot of neuroses further. And based on his looks and personality, it’s clear his money was what drew both Brooke and Mimi-Claire to him. And while Brooke’s pitch about why the restaurant needs to exist is touching, Dylan ultimately belittles her idea and offers only the sum it would take to bail her out of the money she’s lost, rather than give her all that she needs to continue with its opening. This, paired with the reading of Lola’s story (Tony’s girlfriend stole it so she could read it and then exposed its contents to everyone), is all too much for the fallen Mistress America to bear.
Lola, who worries about her sociopathic tendencies, feels remorse over the pain the story has caused Brooke, even though it ends up getting her into the literary society. The decision of their parents not to get married also adds salt into the wound of being disconnected from Brooke’s life. Unable to bear the time spent apart any longer, Tracy seeks Brooke out in her apartment on Thanksgiving Day (they’ve both been forced to spend it alone due to the circumstances of their parents’ breakup) and finds her packing up all of her things. The discovery that Brooke is moving “out west” a.k.a. L.A., where she’s “considered well-read” brings Tracy to tears as she asks if Brooke wants to spend Thanksgiving with her. The two then go to Veselka where the narration of Tracy’s rewritten story (she’s planning to start her own literary society now) explains that Brooke is the last of a dying breed, a mascot for all the romantics and failures still left in the world. Her final line in “Mistress America” explains it well: “Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.” But Mistress America wouldn’t be a superhero if she didn’t do it regardless.