Before I move on to more serious reasons why I liked the movie Mistress America, can we please talk about Lola Kirke’s lisp? She has one. It’s both slightly distracting and majorly adorable. Not since Ione Skye in Say Anything have I seen a lead actress with such a pronounced speech impediment. And I don’t know why no one is bringing it up. I’ve read reviews and articles about Mistress America, thinking someone would mention it… but no. Finally I typed into Google, “Lola Kirke lisp” and got nothing. Which is ridiculous. She has one (click here to hear it), and I think it’s awesome, and I would watch any movie with her in it. (It should be pointed out that I have a slight lisp and was at one point trying to be an actress, and so I might be biased towards the awesomeness of actresses with speech impediments and the need for people to talk about it.)
So. Now we shall discuss the actual movie. Lola Kirke plays Tracy, a lonely freshman at Barnard in New York who is writing short stories and trying to get into her school’s prestigious literary society. She becomes friends with her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke, played by the delightful Greta Gerwig. Brooke is a whirling dervish of fun and crazy: impulsive and egocentric and sort of bitchy, but in an endearing way. She says and does absurd things with no apology and is a fountain of grand ideas that she will never follow through on. Naturally, Tracy, the quiet, observer-of-life writer, is enthralled by her.
I have certainly had Brookes in my life. People who I knew were absurd and teetering on the edge of sanity. People who I knew they weren’t necessarily good friends (or, in some cases, good boyfriend material), and yet I hung out with them, in part because they were fun and interesting, but also, I must admit, because my writer brain kept shouting, good god, this person would make a great character!
And, in fact, sometimes I did make them into characters in my stories. For a short time I hung around with a college-dropout who lived in a teepee in someone’s back yard, wore women’s skirts, and played his guitar on the street for money. He became a character in a short story, obviously. Then I dated this sharp-dressing, egocentric gambling addict who got together with his buddies every year in Vegas and called it “the Dominators Convention.” He was a treasure trove of material. After we broke up, I wrote a short story with a main character based on him, and later, for some reason, I emailed it to him. He was not pleased, and I understand why. The character was less than flattering.
This ends up being one of the major plot points of Mistress America. Tracy writes a short story not-so-loosely based on Brooke. Despite the fact that she loves and admires Brooke, the short story doesn’t exactly speak to that. (The Brooke character is, at one point, called “a carcass doomed to failure.”)
The story gets Tracy into the prestigious literary society. But when Brooke ends up reading it, she’s so angry she stops speaking to Tracy altogether.
This bring up the difficult question of whether or not writers should write fiction based on people they know. A question to which there is really no good answer.
To be honest, I don’t feel especially bad writing the story based on the gambling addict. After all, we weren’t together when I wrote it, and I wasn’t sure that I would ever see him again. What I shouldn’t have done, perhaps, was send it to him. That was a bitch move. A year or so later, he contacted me and said what upset him so much was that the story made him face some difficult truths about himself. (Although, in retrospect, he might have just said this to get me to give him a second chance, which I did, and things yet again ended disastrously between us, prompting me to write yet another short story. Was this a good thing? It’s unclear. I got two short stories and a pile of emotional baggage.)
The point is, I don’t have a good answer to this question. Sometimes I write stories with characters based on people I know. Sometimes they never end up reading it. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they’re upset. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re really mad at me, but they get over it in time. Usually I try not to base characters on close friends and family just in case, but sometimes I can’t help myself.
In Mistress America, Tracy is unapologetic when it comes to writing about Brooke. She’s sorry to have upset her, but she’s not sorry she wrote the story. I guess that sums up the way I feel about it most of the time, too. I never intentionally want to hurt someone’s feelings, especially a loved one. But I also want to write good stories with interesting characters. And sometimes, the things that people do or say are just too absurd or funny or maddening or poignant to let go to waste. Some people are begging (whether they realize it or not) to be turned into characters.
I guess the problem with fiction is that you take a real person and exaggerate them for the purposes of your story. And that can get tricky. They feel that you’re misrepresenting them, spreading lies. You feel you’re being creative. In a way, you are using them for ideas. On the other hand, where else are your ideas supposed to come from other than your own life? What are the ethics of this, exactly? Again, I don’t have the answers here. I’m only posing the questions.
It’s sort of poignant, I suppose, that in the end, Brooke, with her fountain of big ideas, unintentionally gives Tracy ideas for her story. It’s not what Brooke had in mind, and it’s not the way she wants to be portrayed, but still, she’s left a definite impression. And isn’t that what we all want to do in life? To leave some sort of an impression on the people we meet?
All-in-all, I enjoyed Mistress America, and I didn’t do a very good job of describing it here, so please read a more thorough review here or here. I thought it was a funny and poignant and an all-around delight.
*Check out my post about another Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach film, Frances Ha here: Frances Ha & Making a Plan