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Noah Baumbach’s Characters Are Still Coming of Age 20 Years Later

Noah Baumbach's Characters Are Still Coming of Age 20 Years Later

In March of this year, the Music Box Theatre in Chicago ran a retrospective entitled “Growing Up Baumbach,” a tribute to director Noah Baumbach’s twenty years working in film. Almost all of Baumbach’s films are coming-of-age stories, so the Music Box structured the series chronologically by development, starting with High School (“The Squid and the Whale”) and ending with Adulthood (“While We’re Young”). Though it’s not a perfect summation of Baumbach’s oeuvre (as if there exists a perfect summation of any artist’s collected work), it served as an interesting, albeit obvious, diagnosis of the director’s main thematic interest. Baumbach’s films consistently argue that one comes of age whenever deeply held perceptions are challenged and comfortable realities are punctured. Sometimes that takes the form of becoming disillusioned with an idol, abandoning dreams, or even just taking a small leap of faith. But regardless of the circumstance, Baumbach depicts coming-of-age as an uncomfortable, painful process which no one is ever prepared for.

Twenty years ago this October, Baumbach released his debut film “Kicking and Screaming” at the tender age of 26. It follows a group of aimless college graduates who remain in their college town after graduation and live out their post-grad anxieties by
frequenting the local townie bar, cavorting with college freshman at parties they should no longer be attending, and playing trivia games to simultaneously prove their intellectual might and illustrate its worthlessness, i.e. what’s the point of intellect if it’s only employed for memorizing names of films where monkeys play a key role?

Baumbach’s latest film “Mistress America” also focuses on college, but from the perspective from an incoming freshman. 18-year-old Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) feels out of place during her first semester at Barnard as she tries to make friends and gain acceptance into the elitist literary society. Tracy’s mother (Kathryn Erbe) encourages her to spend time with her future step-sister Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a 30-year-old entrepreneur/fitness trainer/middle school math tutor/pseudo-cosmopolitan. After spending one night with Brooke out in the heart of New York City, Tracy becomes infatuated with her and decides to write a short story about her fascinating, but by Tracy’s estimation, doomed life.

Though “Kicking and Screaming” and “Mistress America” have differences in tone (meandering vs. manic), genre (“Diner”-esque hangout film vs. screwball comedy), and perspective (male vs. more-than-partially female), the films still have quite a bit in common despite being filmed almost twenty years apart. Textually, they’re both
self-consciously literary works packed to the brim with quotable one-liners that feature protagonists lost in their chosen environments (not to mention both insightfully skewer and embrace liberal arts undergraduate life), but subtextually, they’re “transition” stories that reflect Baumbach’s anxieties as a twenty-something and as a middle-aged man. At their core, “Kicking and Screaming” is about the transition from inaction to action and “Mistress America” is about the transition from action to reflection.

In “Kicking and Screaming,” Grover (Josh Hamilton) spends most of his post-grad time pining over his ex-girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) and pretending to write. Grover only meets Jane in his last year of college, and she introduces him to her favorite bar, cigarettes, and honest-to-God companionship. But once Jane abandons their plan to move to Brooklyn in favor of attending a writing program in Prague, Grover stays behind at college instead of going with her. When he’s not sleeping with freshman to forget Jane, he smokes like a chimney and downs scotch in that same old bar, desperately holding on to the habits that she taught him while decidedly stuck in neutral with his college pals by his side. (“We
stay together out of fear,” Grover’s friend Max (Chris Eigeman) sneers in his direction. “That’s all we know.”)

“Kicking and Screaming” features two narratives: The first takes place the “semester” after college as Grover and his pals flounder about, and the second takes place senior year of college during Grover and Jane’s courtship. Both capture a specific type of early-twenty’s aimlessness, a period when mundane moments take on cosmic resonance and time feels longer than it actually is, crucially emphasized by Baumbach’s lingering long takes that engender a sort of “paused” existence for his subjects. But that aimlessness takes on a different meaning in each narrative. In the first, it’s the paralyzing kind of aimlessness, one that traps lost souls, but in the second, it’s the inviting kind that makes one never want to leave (it’s no coincidence that Baumbach transitions between past and present time through romantic, borderline-Proustian still-image dissolves), and yet in both narratives, it’s imperative Grover escape that feeling for the sake of maturity and progress. Despite Grover’s best efforts to do nothing his last year at college, he’s compelled to form a relationship with Jane anyway, even though he’s aware heartbreak is around the corner. When the inevitable heartbreak comes at graduation and Grover regresses into apathy, he now has to find it within himself to take a spontaneous leap of action. The two narratives respectively end with Grover declaring his feelings for Jane and attempting to buy a ticket to Prague, and though the former is a success and the latter is a failure, they both represent progress as Grover comes of age.

Though “Kicking and Screaming” is a fantastic film, and one that has become somewhat underrated in light of Baumbach’s later work, it’s still very much a debut, not because of any formal inexperience but because of thematic focus. The process of moving from inaction to action is a classically adolescent one, because it trades on the anxieties and fears commonly associated with youth. On the other hand, “Mistress America” has a decidedly mature bent to it, despite exclusively featuring young subjects (at least relative to Baumbach himself). Compared to “Kicking and Screaming,” “Mistress America” is filled with “active” characters, those who are in the throes of life trying to navigate its unstable waters, but they’re characters who act impulsively without necessarily thinking of the consequences. In short, they’re acting without reflecting on what their actions mean.

In an effort to write a great short story, Tracy idolizes and abstracts her “character” of a future sibling into an actual character on the page. She uses Brooke’s life as a template and projects her own fears and anxieties onto the constructed character, but Tracy’s real-life relationship with Brooke isn’t as neatly exploitative as her story (told in voiceover) makes it appear. Tracy relies on Brooke for material and excitement, but also for motivation, like when Brooke barks at her to figure out how to work a coffee machine after she pleads ignorance. It’s Brooke who inspires confidence in Tracy, not just in her writing, but in her opinions and actions as well. She gets the opportunity to act and feel like an adult through Brooke. In a way, it resembles a mother-daughter relationship (incidentally, only Brooke and Tracy’s mother refer to her as “Baby Tracy”) even though they act like sisters.

But when Brooke,
Tracy, Tracy’s friend Tony (Matthew Shear) and his girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) travel to Greenwich, Connecticut in order to ply Brooke’s former friend and ex-fiancé (Heather Lind and Michael Chernus) for investment capital, Tracy’s own illusions about the purity of her actions are shattered. “Mistress America’s” second-half features some of Baumbach’s best direction to date, as he expertly frames and choreographs a small chamber farce, with characters new and old bursting in and out of frame to spout lines of dialogue at three times the normal speed. This frenzied screwball tone provides an anything-goes energy to “Mistress America” that facilitates among many other things an outlandish reveal of the true nature of Tracy’s story. Once Brooke and the rest of the group read Tracy’s story, they publicly question and interrogate her motives with Brooke in the first place. This brief discussion of fiction writing ethics cleanly mirrors a minor subplot in Baumbach’s previous film “While We’re Young” (also released this year) that explores ethics in documentary filmmaking, but while both at first appear to be strangely preachy asides in otherwise light films, they’re really just Baumbach’s depictions of overt artistic reflection. Both Tracy’s argument with Brooke in “Mistress America” and Josh’s confrontation of Jamie in “While We’re Young” are only broadly about concepts like “Ethics” and “Art,” but are instead simply mechanisms of maturity. Through depictions of forced reflection in disorienting public settings, Baumbach illustrates the necessity of acting with clear purpose and feeling, not just with bravado.

Moreover, the ethical conflicts in both films aren’t lingered upon and are quickly elided by other more emotionally immediate concerns. Though there’s talk of a frivolous lawsuit and a feminist litmus test during Tracy’s humiliating “feedback session,” she still unapologetically publishes her story in the exclusive literary magazine, and Brooke ultimately ends up obtaining a copy to read the finished version. Baumbach never positions the ethical issue along right and wrong lines, but instead grounds it in emotional territory — it’s not that Tracy used Brooke’s life as inspiration for her story, it’s that she was completely oblivious as to how Brooke might feel about it and how it would affect their relationship. It’s less about condemning certain artistic practices/motives and more about the process of questioning them, and how that process can provide clarity and growth to one’s own pursuits. By the end of “Mistress America,” Tracy’s proud of her story, but it’s arguably the ethical confrontation about her story that compels her to create her own literary magazine so as not to be at the whims of “self-elected douchebags.” And though she never explicitly says it, Tracy’s final meet-up with Brooke functions as an expression of gratitude (as opposed to contrition) for being a part of her life. It’s a small moment but one that signals Tracy’s coming of age.

Though they stand twenty years apart, the main difference between “Kicking and Screaming” and “Mistress America” isn’t generational, but rather perspectival. Both films are coming-of-age stories centered in and around college, but the former adopts youthful angst while the latter assumes middle-aged anxiety. For Baumbach, the defining tension in youth is to take action even in the face of crippling self-doubt, but in middle age, it’s for those actions to have prescribed intent and meaning. “Kicking and Screaming” and “Mistress America” feature protagonists evolving from existence to being, but of course, “being” at 25 means something far different than at 45.

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