At a recent preview screening of Noah Baumbach's new movie Mistress America, co-screenwriter and star Greta Gerwig joked that only two movies have ever passed the Bechdel Test. "Both of them are mine."
You can Google Alison Bechdel and her celebrated "test" if you need to, but suffice to say that she was pointing out how uniformly female characters in narratives are identified entirely by their pursuit of a heterosexual partner. It is about as sophisticated as any three-question test can be, but it has become a touchstone for much-needed discussion about the portrayal of women in film.
In Mistress America, that subject is as important to Gerwig and Baumbach as it was in their first collaboration, 2013's Frances Ha. In the earlier movie, Gerwig played Frances Halladay, a young woman whose dreams outpace her talent, and who goes on a bumpy ride throughout New York and beyond trying to find her place in the world. It was such a refreshing, offbeat and loose journey, buoyed by an outstanding performance by Gerwig, that it was nominated for awards all over the place.
To the best of my knowledge, it didn't win any of them.
That is the perfect metaphor for Baumbach and Gerwig. Together, they are so smart, so funny, so knowing about the very nature of dreaming big, falling short, and moving on. So knowing about growing up. And yet, there is often something that seems to be missing in their work. Something that keeps it from finding mainstream success.
Mistress America would appear to fall into that category as well. It's a shame because Gerwig and co-star Lola Kirke should be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Kirke plays Tracy, a shy, smart, and pretty college freshman who arrives at Barnard College in New York ready to become a writer. Like so many before her, Tracy struggles mightily to find her niche. She seems to find a fairy godmother in the person of Brooke, her 30 year-old soon-to-be stepsister, who leads a seemingly fabulous life in the heart of the big city. Brooke takes Tracy on a whirlwind night out in Manhattan and Tracy begins to find her confidence and her voice.
Gerwig drew part of her inspiration from classic American screwball comedy, and it is easy to see Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby cropping up in the frames of Mistress America. But it is hard to imagine Hawks permitting the loose plotting that gives Baumbach's movie its haphazard feeling. It's hard to imagine Hawks including a character like Karen, the pregnant lawyer who gets caught up in Brooke's odd machinations when she takes a trip to Connecticut to convince old friends to invest in her dream business. Karen is just there waiting to be picked up by her husband, and though actress Cindy Cheung is quite funny, she has no real narrative purpose. There are hiccups and oddities like that throughout Mistress America.
Baumbach and Gerwig barely seemed concerned with plotting. When Tracy momentarily appears to achieve her dream toward the end of the movie, she tosses it aside without so much as a clever two-line scene. By that point in the story, we should understand Tracy enough to realize why she is doing it. Baumbach and Gerwig are all about the characters and the relationships and that is what elevates Mistress America above recent attempts at female bonding like Lynn Shelton's 2014 movie Laggies. That movie also had a young adult woman forming a friendship with a teenage girl, but it gave in to rather standard, and largely contrived, romantic plotting which had the older woman "find" herself by finding the right older man.
The two main characters in Mistress America are very strong creations. Tracy is shy, but reveals a genuine strength which allows her to stand up to the whirlwind that is Brooke. Brooke initially appears as a smart airhead, who we suspect talks a better game than she actually plays. The fact that both characters consistently surprise us in small ways without ever betraying their true natures is a testament to the writing and to the acting. These are comically exaggerated characters, but they never feel contrived.
Although the pursuit of boyfriends does figure into the narrative, it plays a relatively minor role. Brooke offers Tracy advice on how to live, how to dream, how to see the world. Tracy, as she gets drawn more and more into Brooke's powerful orbit, uses her facility with language to support Brooke's aspirations. Even though Tracy is too smart not to realize Brooke is likely to fail, she still is able to teach her mentor a few things about pitching a product.
Gerwig said this was one of her primary inspirations for Mistress America; to develop the type of relationship between two females that is usually reserved only for men. Baumbach pointed to the relationship between the two leads in "The Great Gatsby" as a prime example of this type of male relationship. I thought more of Dylan Kidd's 2002 Roger Dodger. It doesn't really matter. There are plenty of these movies out there for the boys.
The movies which feature women in these roles are harder to find, but they do exist. Nicole Holofcener's early movies dramatize these relationships. This past year, in Olivier Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart played out a different type of mentor/disciple relationship. And this is also the year of Spy, which has broken many of the rules for female characters in action movies.
But Baumbach and Gerwig form their own unique voice. It would be easy to say that Gerwig has warmed Baumbach's icy artistic exterior. The brilliant misanthropy of his earlier work like The Squid and the Whale is nowhere to be found in either of his two Gerwig collaborations. The literate, multi-character dialogue is still there (and in this, Mistress America seems far more influenced by the work of Whit Stillman, for whom Gerwig acted in 2011's Damsels in Distress), as is the sharp delineation of character and laugh-out-loud humor. It is remarkable how well Baumbach and Gerwig handle scenes in which many characters speak in rapid-fire succession. In that regard, Mistress America can hold its own with classic screwball comedy. But Katharine Hepburn and Myrna Loy and Barbara Stanwyck never had to worry about the Bechdel test. Inequality may have existed on many levels, but screwball actresses gave as good as they got. In their second movie together, Baumbach and Gerwig make a pretty good stab at re-establishing that equilibrium.