manic pixie real girl
Greta Gerwig’s Brooke, in the marvelously fresh and funny Mistress America, isn’t a manic pixie dream girl, at least not in the cardboard barely-there sense that the term usually denotes. She is an inspiration to her soon-to-be-stepsister, Tracy (Lola Kirke: Gone Girl), and a prod for the quiet college freshman to get out and experience all the weird wonderfulness that New York City has to offer. But it’s absolutely clear from the get-go that if Brooke is a force of nature, she’s more tornado than summer breeze: as wantonly heedless and thoughtlessly cruel as she is confident, as full of herself as she is full of ambition. She is a whirlwind of creativity and a fount of possibility with, apparently, no idea how to follow through on anything.
Mistress America — the title comes from one of Brooke’s never-to-be-achieved ideas for a TV show about a female superhero — is very much what a story about a manic pixie dream girl might look like if it booted out the mopey guy trailing around after her and let the woman herself take center stage. And then pulled back the veil on her alleged perfection to reveal her complicated, contradictory humanity. Brooke is, Tracy eventually decides, “all romance and failure.” Which is one of the most bracing ways to describe a woman onscreen that I have heard in forever, because “failure” isn’t something we let women in movies be (unless they’re villains to be thwarted). Yet failure — and learning from it — is absolutely essential to a character’s growth and to any portrait of a believable person. That pop culture rarely lets women experience this is a huge problem, and contributes to the deficit of humanity granted women
But here is Brooke, all romance and failure, and a hoot to spend time with, even if she is a mess. Her mess is what makes her fun, in fact. Director Noah Baumbach (While We’re Young, Frances Ha), who cowrote the film with Gerwig (Frances Ha, Lola Versus), turns the adventures of Brooke and Tracy into something that feels like a mashup of, well, Baumbach’s usual bohemian caprice, a John Hughes-ish lark, and old-fashioned screwball comedy, all rapid-fire wit and snark and aching wisdom, though sometimes of the variety that the speaker doesn’t realize she’s hit on. There’s suspense, too, in wondering whether impressionable Tracy, who very quickly comes to adore Brooke, will mold herself in Brooke’s image — probably not the best idea — or find her own way.
Fie on those guys who need manic pixie dream girls to help them find themselves. These two women are muses and motivations for each other as they try to figure out where they fit in, what they should do with their lives, what they even want in the first place. Girls and women need help along the way just as much as boys and men do. More movies need to appreciate that, and show us that.