Movies these days tend to be events. Even the smaller ones are often given the royal treatment, when it comes from a beloved, established filmmaker. Noam Baumbach is certainly one of those, yet he’s managed to avoid making capital-E Events out of his efforts, even when The Squid And The Whale had him hailed as one of the hottest auteurs of the new century.
In the past few years, Baumbach’s movies have been received as trifles instead. They come across as cinematic shrugs. “Maybe this works, and maybe it doesn’t!” each new film seems to say. In part, it might be because he’s been fairly prolific recently — 2015 saw him release both While We’re Young and Mistress America. Or maybe because it’s easy enough to compare his movies to those of Woody Allen — both in craft, content, and recent frequency of output.
Allen’s movies aren’t often that ambitious, either, and they come out so often, it’s easy to give the less inspired ones a pass — if one doesn’t quite ring our bell, there will soon be another. The same is true of Noah Baumbach. I know this sounds like a back-handed compliment, which is really not how I mean it at all. I don’t mean to say he’s not trying that hard, because making a movie of any kind or quality requires herculean effort, especially ones that are as enjoyable as While We’re Young and Frances Ha. It’s just that the effort doesn’t show. I hate to say that they feel “tossed off,” but they do, in a way. It’s just that they’re tossed off incredibly well that makes them feel so unique.
The latest is Mistress America, a spiritual sequel, of sorts, to 2013’s Frances Ha, which ended up unexpectedly sneaking onto my Top Ten list that year. I wasn’t sure I loved Frances Ha until I started remembering so many moments from it so fondly — like a spontaneous weekend trip to Paris that Frances accidentally sleeps through, or the way she merely squawks when a friend makes what might be a pass at her. Like its titular character, whose name is cut off on her mailbox the same way her life has fallen short of its full potential, it is a movie content with its quirks, effusive and engaging despite not necessarily amounting to much in the grand scheme of things. (Frances Halladay’s life looks rather puny when you stack her up against The Wolf Of Wall Street‘s Jordan Belfort in my #1 pick from 2013, just as Frances Ha is a much slighter movie. But in their own ways, they both have plenty to say about the power of money in New York.)
Frances Ha is deceptively simple, while at the same, revisiting a similar creative bohemia as the one found in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (and plenty of his other films) — writers, actors, and artists finding kinship in each other, spouting more ideas than credentials. Fittingly, Frances Ha updates Allen’s formula with a post-recession, millennial brokeness that is essential for any accurate account of present day twenty-something life in the big city. Yes, I know it sounds a lot like I’m re-reviewing Frances Ha, but you can’t examine Baumbach’s latest without at least a glance back at what he’s done with Gerwig previously. Mistress America is less of a throwback — its look and feel are more contemporary, and, by design, its vision of New York City has far less charm — but it’s also talking about “our generation” in a major way. Like Frances Ha, it is a half a throwback, while the other half is as immediate and relevant as a movie can be.
While Frances Halladay and Mistress America‘s Brooke Cardinas certainly have plenty in common — particularly that they’re both co-written and played to perfection by Greta Gerwig — the movies have a few key differences. For one, the wide-eyed protagonist of Mistress America is actually Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke), a freshman at Barnard and aspiring writer who finds herself at odds with her classmates, gravitating instead toward her thirtyish stepsister-to-be. Like Frances, Brooke is passionate and charismatic, with big ideas and not so much follow-through or finesse, having a hard time paying the rent. (This isn’t Baumbach repeating himself — technically, almost any story set in New York City these days should revolve primarily around paying the rent.) But Brooke is also a bit of a self-involved monster, who seemingly only considers what other people have to say when it’s something she can poach for a tweet. (As Tracy eventually tells her, Brooke’s relationship with social media is awkward.) Brooke is a singular construction, more the butt of a joke than Frances Halladay was, and at least somewhat less sympathetic — but still, it’s hard not to root for her on some level.
I have a feeling I’ll have more to say about Mistress America‘s themes when I have a chance to watch it again, perhaps around the time my Top 10 list comes out? (Hint!) For now, I mustn’t forget to praise its more surface-level highlights, including an absolutely hilarious sequence set entirely in a Connecticut mansion that takes up most of the second half of this movie, but moves at such a clip it feels like the best (and possibly only) screwball comedy in decades.
Mistress America occasionally threatens to turn into one of those tired films where someone writes a story based on someone else, and that person gets mad at it — and that does happen, it’s just somehow fresh again as Baumbach and Gerwig present it. The movie zigs where other movies zag to keep us guessing. Baumbach’s While We’re Young was a perfectly enjoyable 2015 trifle, but it’s obvious where Mistress America is very subtle, while exploring some similar ideas. (Brooke is at least a decade younger than Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts’ characters in that movie, but she still manages to feel like a dinosaur when she’s hanging out with a bunch of college kids.) Baumbach has always managed to include vital female characters in his films, but this one is almost totally dominated by women, and in my opinion, it’s his best work. To be honest, I was too busy enjoying Mistress America‘s madcap pace to bother thinking about it much in the moment, but beneath the absurdity is a biting and relevant piece of work, one that will reward many multiple viewings. I can’t wait for it to so.For an even more contentious rivalry between a misguided older woman and an ingenue, consider The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, the controversial tale of a fifteen-year-old who begins a passionate affair with her mother’s boyfriend. (Ick!) Minnie (Bel Pawley) is a talented budding artist whose hormones go a-ragin’, as hormones tend to do at that age. However, most teenagers don’t have a single mother who regularly holds cocaine-fueled ragers and encourages the flaunting of pubescent T&A. (Or maybe they did in 1976, when this story takes place.) Minnie’s absentee mom Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) all but advocates for her daughter’s sexual experimentation, which unfortunately for Charlotte includes the 35-year-old Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), simultaneously boning mother and daughter. (Ick!)
An affair between a teenager and a much older dude is slightly more taboo now than it was then (though equally illegal), but the film doesn’t make any particular judgments about the characters. While not exactly condoning the romance, writer/director Marielle Heller doesn’t demonize Monroe or depict him as a depraved pervert. He’s just a guy who gets involved with someone he obviously shouldn’t, for multiple reasons. Their love story is given as equal a consideration as any other — he’s not just a pervert, and she’s not just a victim. The two have a genuine bond and genuine feelings, however illegal those feelings may be. Minnie’s emotions aren’t dismissed just because she’s a teenage girl who only recently went through puberty.
Heller is remarkably competent as a first-time filmmaker, nailing the period details and guiding the cast’s uniformly strong performances. But it’s the subject matter itself that feels freshest. The Diary Of A Teenage Girl contains some fairly graphic sexuality and an even franker look at a young woman’s libido, without shying away from the more uncomfortable bits. By the end, Minnie will have engaged in some behavior we probably wouldn’t want our own daughters or sisters engaging in, but it’s hard to judge, given how honest Heller is in depicting the confusing tug-of-war between childhood and womanhood that hits every girl at one point or another.
Minnie makes choices many of us wouldn’t make, exploring her sexuality more freely than a lot of people would at that age (though, again, it is the 70s), but none of it is out of character. Heller knows we have a tendency to throw the book at a woman — particularly such a young woman — who shows such sexual agency. So do some of the characters — like one of Minnie’s teen peers (and sexual partners), who is intimidated by the mere fact that a teenage girl knows what she wants and expects sex to be mutually satisfying. (The nerve!) In this way, the film is practically daring us to judge it, or any of its characters. Ultimately, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl shows that growing up isn’t about being ashamed or dissuaded from sex, but merely learning how to navigate around fleeting desires to find what one truly wants.And finally, there’s Queen Of Earth, the new film by Alex Ross Perry that somewhat defies categorization by genre, because what happens in the storyline doesn’t necessarily match the murky mood it strikes. Queen Of Earth begins with a lengthy close-up of a very distraught Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) reacting to the very bad news that her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) has been seeing someone else and is leaving her. Catherine takes off for an indefinite stay at the family vacation home of her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), kicking off a third notable arthouse flick this summer that relies heavily on conflict between its female leads.
Things are not exactly warm and fuzzy between Catherine and Virginia. Flashbacks reveal that the friendship was almost equally toxic a year ago, when Catherine and James visited this very lake house in somewhat happier times. (For Catherine.) Also of note: Catherine’s father, a famous artist, recently committed suicide, and Catherine, an artist herself, is having a hard time slipping out from underneath his shadow. Complicating matters is Virginia’s perpetual fling Rich (Patrick Fugit), who seems to enjoy subtly tormenting Catherine.
The less said about what truly happens in Queen Of Earth, the better, but suffice to say that the unsettling direction and agonizingly creepy score by Keegan DeWitt make everything feel entirely off-kilter, even when there’s nothing explicitly unnerving happening on screen. In ways, Queen Of Earth could be construed as a partial remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, though it attacks some different ideas. The title refers to Catherine’s high opinion of herself — at least, before those twin tragedies befell her — which is pointed out by Virginia numerous times in the flashbacks. (We see less evidence of Catherine’s haughtiness than Virginia seems to.) Both women come from wealthy and/or well-known families; Virginia does not ever work, it seems, and Catherine was a glorified assistant for her father. Their privilege may or may not have something to do with how things turn out.Queen Of Earth ultimately goes down a more traditional path than you might expect, given how unusual its aesthetic is. The color palette is reminiscent of a 70s film, and aspects like the film’s titles and poster are also throwbacks, while the tone itself is entirely in keeping with a post-modern indie. Individual haunting moments hang together better than the movie as a whole, and a nagging question or two may linger once it is over. Katherine Waterson is as captivating and elusive a figure as she was as Shasta in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. In both films, we end up feeling like she’s hiding a lot of her character from us, and in Queen Of Earth, it might have helped to know her a little better, if only to explain some of her actions. But this is really Elisabeth Moss’ showcase, and she’s phenomenal from the first frame — even if the journey Catherine goes on is not a terribly original one for the plot of a psychological thriller. (The ending is fairly ambiguous, though at least it’s clear exactly what psychological state Catherine is in.)
If the story of Queen Of Earth lets us down somewhat, Perry’s direction keeps us guessing — unfolding largely in long takes, it’s the kind of film where watching someone listen tends to be more revealing than watching a person speak, and the flashbacks feel so immediate that it’s sometimes jarring to return to the present day story because we were so invested in what happened before. Without further examinations upon repeated viewings and a clearer grasp on what’s happened by the end, I cannot say with complete confidence that Queen Of Earth is about the narcissism of artists and rich people, but that’s the direction I’m leaning. A high-and-mighty, privileged woman like Catherine may get used to things turning out a certain way, and when they suddenly go wrong, the effect can be quite a wake-up call. This film is the sound of her thudding back down to Earth.