The millennial complex

Mistress America explores the challenges of adulthood

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The baby boom officially lasted from 1946-66 and grouped together the kids who came of age during Beatlemania with those who came of age during the oil crisis of the 1970s.

One group culturally influenced by an economic boom, and the next by the bust that followed it. To talk about the boomers as one distinct and united cohort is problematic at best.

Millennials, roughly defined as people born between 1980 and 1997, are equally as tenuous and diverse a group. I was born in 1994 and find it a little weird I’m lumped in with people who were starting university before I knew my multiplication tables. We are often derided by our elders as narcissistic, self-centred, over-sensitive and cheap.

Mistress America, the latest comedy from Noah Baumbach seeks to show millennials as diverse and complicated while also holding a mirror to us, forcing recognition of our flaws and anxieties as a generation.

The film examines the relationship between freshman college student Tracy (Lola Kirk) and her soon-to-be step-sister Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Tracy looks to make a name for herself in writing while Brooke is trying to start a restaurant shortly after her 30th birthday. Tracy, a late millennial struggling with anxiety and self-doubt, looks up to the charismatic and effervescent Brooke, herself an early millennial suffering from endless passion while lacking follow through.

Mistress America is phenomenally funny and delivers on the promise of Baumbach’s 2012 film, Frances Ha, which also sought to put real millennials on screen but was less successful in doing so. Both Kirk and Gerwig give incredible performances, portraying a common anxiety between their two characters of feeling trapped between two worlds. Featuring a thematically resonant 1980s-inspired soundtrack, which captures this anxiety in its mix of 1980s synth and modern pop, the film hits closer to home than you might expect walking into the theatre.

Baumbach and Gerwig co-wrote the screenplay and they faithfully capture how millennials act and speak. Late in the film we are introduced to Dylan and Mamie-Claire, a couple living in a fancy house in Connecticut that Brooke knew years before and now needs money from for her restaurant.

They are early millennials like Brooke and at first they look and sound more professional than the characters we’ve been following. But as the situation progresses and becomes tense they revert and sound like Tracy and her friends. The pressures of adulthood thrust upon them became a mask they would put on to show they had “grown-up.”

On the other hand Tony and Nicollette, Tracy’s friends from school who joined her on the escapade, demonstrate the inverse of this identity problem. When they arriving at the house to a book club for pregnant women hosted there, Tony becomes enamoured with the high literature discussed. He immediately joins the group while Brooke solicits Mamie-Claire for the money.

Acting grown up and being with grown-ups is all the millennials want to do, but smoking pot out of an apple bong, acting recklessly and frequently losing attention to the problems at hand are still parts of their identity bubbling just beneath the surface.

Sitting in the theatre at the Princess, I was struck by how many people I know in real life act like the characters in the film.

Remembering how hard it was to make friends in first-year like Tracy is a vivid memory, but as I get older I understand the pressures of having friends to keep up with people like Brooke. Tony struggles with his relationship with Nicollette because she is paranoid he’s cheating on her when all he wants is to not be lonely. Mamie-Claire wants a child, but not because motherhood is something she is passionate about; she’s really just afraid of losing her husband and thus the people and status in her life.

Many of these problems seem contradictory, but it is that conflict between loneliness and social expectations which seems to be the defining characteristic of millennials. Watching Tracy learn the balance between courageously asserting her will while also learning to really listen to those around her is how the film tries to combat both of these anxieties. Demonstrating that loneliness is not a death sentence, and selfishness can’t be a sanctuary when things start getting hard.

Mistress America has really promising things to say about the potential for millennials to be a force for good in the world, but also presents us with the harsh truths about how we engage with everyday life. Every millennial who sees this film will get something different out of it, laugh at moments, cry at times and identify with different characters. Mistress America is a Breakfast Club for millennials and it’s one of the best movies of 2015.

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