‘Mistress America’ (2015): Lady Bird’s Almost-Sister and The Sense of Self

Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America shines as a coming-of-age film. The feature follows the slightly frumpy and introverted Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) as she navigates her first semester of college in the unfamiliar New York City. Complaining of loneliness to her mother, she follows her advice to contact her soon-to-be stepsister, the older and altogether more exciting Brooke (Greta Gerwig) who also lives in the city. As the film unfolds, we see Brooke from Tracy’s perspective; she is fun and irresponsible and beautiful and ultimately a failure. While Tracy gains her own confidence, the shining pedestal she places Brooke on begins to teeter. However, if we take a step back, it becomes obvious that Tracy is the classic Holden Caulfield type of unreliable narrator armed with the quick-witted social observations of a Baumbach script.  

Tracy and her interactions with the world around her ring familiar of that of the eponymous protagonist in Gerwig’s later directorial debut Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan). Lady Bird is arguably the best coming-of-age film in its depiction of a realistic mother-daughter relationship. It allows the limits of the protagonist to be bounced off the viewpoint of her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and proves the pains of growing up are the same pains as those of a parent letting go. We feel sympathy for both Lady Bird and her mother throughout the course of the film as we are shown their strengths and flaws alike; Lady Bird is stroppy and short-sighted and Marion takes every throwaway deliberately literally. With no objective antagonist, Lady Bird feels more like real life than many coming-of-age films, which tend to focus on a righteous young person’s perspective. Mistress America is one of those films. It is through Tracy’s lens we see the world and so it is the Brooke that Tracy sees who we meet onscreen. Baumbach cleverly builds upon this by showing how Tracy is subtly shaped by Brooke’s apparent influence. Brooke’s protestations to these actions of Tracy’s allow reality to slip through. 

Image Courtesy of IAC Films

Tracy, like Lady Bird and like most other 18-year olds, is a bit of a contradiction. The world is her oyster and she feels it fully and nervously, grappling with an odd combination of superiority and insecurity. She considers herself more intelligent than all her classmates but is hesitant to speak; she hoards a belief that she is special but portrays no external traits that makes her stand out; her first attempt to join the prestigious literary society falling flat and her grades decidedly average. Tracy admires people wildly, especially Brooke who she sees as everything she is not, but, like Lady Bird, she fails to recognise that the inner lives of all those she interacts with are as rich as her own. In Lady Bird, friends are the most ambiguous characters in terms of exposing their inner self . Danny’s (Lucas Hedges) being gay comes as a complete surprise because Lady Bird does not expect it and Julie’s (Beanie Feldstein) depression is never explored. As a film, it mostly focusses on Lady Bird’s connection to her mother, and so we must rely on what we are explicitly shown of the other characters through action to discover their true feelings. Similarly, Tracy relies on Brooke’s external action to reveal her true self, making quick judgments in the process. 

For the most part, Brooke makes sense to Tracy. In her eyes, she fits into the classic trope of the ‘woman-child’, a stereotype defined by uncertainty, large unrealistic ambition and a big city backdrop. Through this, Tracy makes Brooke digestible and two-dimensional. She praises herself for foreseeing the so-called failure of Brooke’s dream to open a restaurant, looking down on her almost-sister whilst also looking to her for her every move. Tracy judges how Brooke expresses the grief of losing her mother at a young age, criticising how she blurts it out in social settings. What Tracy fails to recognise is that for Brooke there is no ‘right time’ to reveal such information, so to announce it to an unwitting bystander makes as much sense as to mention it in a more civilised manner. Tracy also deems Brooke’s lack of tertiary education as bohemian but pegs her lack of follow-through to this fact. For Tracy, all of life’s uncertainties can and must be fixed by college. As she is aware of how much she wants to achieve, the thought that her crutch of academia may not be as instrumental to her greatness as she has planned is worrying. 

Tracy’s naivety shines through in full at the film’s climax. Having used Brooke’s life as inspiration for her most recent short story, Tracy is horrified to find that Brooke is hurt by the contents: “You seemed so cool, I didn’t think it would be possible to hurt you”. It is here we see a divergence from Tracy’s sense of Brooke’s self and Brooke’s actual sense of self. In fact, throughout the film, there are many things that Tracy does not understand about Brooke beyond traits that can be quoted in short fiction. Brooke’s relationship with her fiancé is never explored onscreen because Tracy does not think it is important, whilst meeting an old schoolmate in a bar is worthwhile because it causes a scene. When faced with an upset Brooke, Tracy cannot discern the difference between this action of betrayal inflicted on a personal she barely knows and the spat between Brooke and Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), an established, adult friendship.  

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

If Brooke is the ‘woman-child’, then Tracy is the ‘smart girl’ who is unable to navigate relationships honestly for fear of losing the upper hand. Whilst criticising her almost-sister, Tracy fails to recognise that she has placed herself in the position where she needs Brooke’s permission in order to act. Tracy is passive in the beginning of the film, making little effort to forge friendships or turn her college work in on-time. Where Lady Bird expects her New York college experience to make her feel immediately grown-up, Tracy expects her self-professed genius to shine through without effort. It is only with the external influence of Brooke that she begins to act with an intention in mind; in writing fiction, reapplying for the literary society, critiquing her friend Tony’s (Matthew Shear) work and kissing him behind his girlfriend’s back. She has developed a version of Brooke in her own head who allows her a loophole of acting in certain ways without assessing her motivation. If Brooke can kiss a bassist when her fiancé is out of town, why can’t Tracy kiss Tony? If Brooke can tweet a funny quip of Tracy’s, why can’t she, in turn, write a critical short story? But when Brooke acts in ways Tracy sees as out of character, it upsets her; she does not understand the quick reconciliation between Brooke and Mamie-Claire nor Brooke’s consideration to abandon her ambition to set up a restaurant.  

As an audience we are never privy to Brooke’s inner life, we just see her overflow of ideas. Tracy mistakes this constant stream of outward creativity partnered with limited material success for a lack of depth. The root of this competitive internalised misogyny is never revealed in Tracy, but it is clear it manifests itself simultaneously as disbelief and envy. Mamie-Claire addresses this directly in an act of bathos during the revelation of the short story scene. Acting as a logical foil to the situation, she asserts herself to Tracy, asking her to assess the implications of the women in her short fiction saying “You write women terribly”. Where Brooke expresses the emotional and personal hurt caused, Mamie-Claire draws the audience’s attention to consider faults within Tracy’s own character for the first time in the film.  

Miscommunication in the film comes down to Tracy being an unreliable narrator. Perhaps most telling of this is her relationship with Tony, her only college friend. There is a short suggestion of attraction between the pair, but this fails to come to fruition and Tony begins to date possessive Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Tony is a mirror Tracy bounces off; they are both writers, each secretly thinking themselves as the most talented and both desperate to be dubbed genius. In a conversation following their kiss, Tracy is rashly honest for the first time, stating, “Sometimes I think I’m just smarter and better than anyone else, and if I could figure out my look, I’d be the most beautiful woman in the world too”. Tracy’s unreliability is revealed in her immature egotism which is matched by Tony’s “Sometimes I think I’m a genius and I wish I could fast forward my life to the part where everyone knows it”.  

Image courtesy of IAC Films

This revealing interaction proves that, whilst critical of Brooke, these younger characters are as wildly ambitious as her, creating a situational catch 22. Brooke must succeed to prove such ambition is worthwhile but also must fail to prove them as the truly special ones. Brooke’s pulling away from the friendship is a worse fate than both for Tracy, who turns out to be altogether less in-the-know that she thinks. She compares this situation to her mother’s romantic break-up proving that she, like the characteristic ‘woman-child’ she was so quick to judge, developed a quick and intense attachment. Following what Tracy calls her ‘break-up’ with Brooke, Brooke still influences her decisions. It is from a suggestion Brooke made that Tracy moves to set up her own literary society and therefore with Brooke’s indirect help she is able to begin to reconcile a friendship with Tony and begin to look to Nicolette with something other than rivalry. Without Brooke, Tracy begins to understand the value in her older sister’s strive for creativity and reconciliation. 

The film concludes on an interesting note. Despite destining Brooke to failure in her prose, Tracy truly thinks she is magical, and this is shown explicitly in her decision to title her story after Brooke’s own invented superhero, Mistress America. In Lady Bird, Lady Bird is able to find understanding through being witness to the inner workings of her mother’s emotions when she reads her letters. Tracy never experiences this revelation. What she finds upon her reconnection to Brooke is that her words are finite. Having purchased the short story she was so offended by, Brooke regains the upper hand and in planning to college as a mature student, she exhibits a refreshing second wind of ambition. However, despite this move on Brooke’s part, Tracy’s viewpoint remains stagnant, narrating in voiceover that “[Brooke] was the last cowboy; all romance and failure […] being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business”. It is poetic in its deliverance, but her words fall flat and fictional. Tracy has not grown but the viewer has; able to identity that Tracy, in all her improvident unreliability, refuses to see what her older sister is capable of.

Header image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures