Script to screen: Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America”

Noah Baumbamb

A few weeks ago, I started reading scripts for movies that I wanted to gain pointers from for my screenplay. It’s an exercise that mostly has to do with learning structure and how much to include in the script. Recently, I read two scripts by writer/director Noah Baumbach: “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America.” They’re an easy read without any complicated plots or schemes, and they rely heavily on dialogue. As a budding screenwriter looking for guidance, they present a troubling conundrum – should I include much action in the script or should I leave it to the director. 

With the writer and director being the same person, it’s not hard for Baumbach to leave the action to the director as he is doing that himself. His actions are small but effective, like this description of Cornelia’s dancing in a hip-hop class in “While We’re Young”:

Tupac’s “Hit Em Up” blasts on and the women start doing 90’s music video dance moves. Cornelia tries to keep up, but looks less like a fly girl than a farmer doing a hoe-down.

It’s easy to picture how awkward a middle-aged woman is in a room full of young dancers. However, much of the rest of the script lacks much direction. It illustrates how confident Baumbach is in his work as a director that he leaves out so much in the script.

The problem that I have with Baumbach’s scripts and films in general is that almost none of his characters are remotely likable. Before reading these two scripts, I had watched “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding” and “Frances Ha.” I wasn’t particularly fond of any of them, and I had hoped that by reading the scripts to two of Baumbach’s features would give me more insight into his method of character development and filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the exercise made me loathe him even more. The translation of “Mistress America” from paper to screen was spot on. It was exactly how I imagined the movie to be like after reading the script. Yet, I didn’t like the movie. The push to make Brooke (actress/co-writer Greta Gerwig) the film’s hero is forced. Brooke is greatly flawed as a 30-year-old woman-child who creates a bigger hole for herself with every dream and bad mistake she makes. The so-called lead Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a drag throughout the script and the movie.

“While We’re Young” falls into the same category – a good translation of a bad product. You can read more about my thoughts on the film here.



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