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By Richard von Busack January 24, 2017
There is weight in the charming 20th Century Women—seriousness that keeps it from blowing away like a load of Styrofoam peanuts in the wind. That weight comes from the realization of how remote the seemingly near past actually is.
Mike Mills' third and best film (after Beginners and Thumbsucker) is also the closest to his models in the French New Wave. This fictionalized memoir recalls Louis Malle, the least radical of that assemblage of 1960s French filmmakers, and the one who turned out to have the warmest and longest view of all of them. Mills' Beginners was a memorial to a father who came out of the closet in his 70s. 20th Century Women honors Mills' mother as a woman whose life was bounded by the last century. The title isn't too lofty: the film commemorates the time's ideals, fascinations and naivete.
Spanning 1978-79, the story centers on Dorothea (Annette Bening). She owns an old, shambling, stuffed-with-ferns house in Santa Barbara. The place is being rebuilt by a gentle hippie handyman William (Billy Crudup). Her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), has an easy time in school. While he's occasionally bullied—the target of homophobic slurs, due to his interests in art and the Talking Heads—his life can be symbolized by the long, lazy slaloms he carves on his skateboard down the live-oak-covered hills.
Boy children in single-mother homes used to be fretted over—without a paternal model, surely they'd turn gay? What one loves about 20th Century Women is that the movie takes the opposite pole, insisting that a young man can learn a lot from hanging around women. Jamie has a sleepover pal Julie (Elle Fanning) who isn't interested in him sexually. She gives him lessons to make him cool, and advice like, "Guys aren't supposed to think about what they look like."
Jamie is also friendly with the twenty-something lodger, Abbie. She's played by the delightfully gawky Greta Gerwig, in brick-red hennaed hair. Gerwig here is not going to cure anybody's Greta Gerwig crush. In this telling, Abbie is the patient zero of punk rock in Santa Barbara, a student in NYC who had to come back West with her LPs after a medical crisis. Punk and a little bit of psychedelics bring a new wave of possibilities, opening a small window of liberation before Santa Barbara-area man Ronald Reagan arrives to slam it all shut.
The movie earns its needle drops: Talking Heads, DEVO, the Buzzcocks and The Clash. Inadvertently, Mills ends up commemorating the death of Bowie—who passed after filming wrapped—through the use of "DJ," a Berlin-era track that didn't get overplayed when the musician died last year.
Mills, a rock video director turned feature filmmaker, is far less precious than he's been in previous work. You'll remember his Oscar-winning Beginners (2011): that was the one where the dog talked and Melanie Laurent didn't. Mills still has an eye on pets: one sidebar in 20th Century Women is about a pair of pet zebra finches, birds that are said to die of broken hearts if their mates perish. (I've heard that said about them, but my finches have always been more pragmatic—they muddle through tragedy, just like the rest of us.) Mostly the film is sweet on the past, in this transition from hippie twilight to the kind-of-sort-of dancing at punk rock clubs. And the film is stitched with shots of a VW beetle sailing down coastal highways, leaving streaks behind it, like the blur on the figures in a disintegrating VHS tape. It's a bit of special effects indicating that the passengers in the car are stoned and on their way to fun.
Dorothea is a role that gives Bening a chance to display brittleness and authority, some grain and some rind. The film breaks the frame so much that there's barely a frame to remind us of the air of that time. Godard-wise, it quotes from texts as different as "Our Bodies, Ourselves", Judy Blume's novels and President Jimmy Carter's malaise speech. It may not be the movie about the cusp of the '70s and the '80s, but it gets so much so right that it's immersive: a bittersweet reminder of a lost world.
By iheardthatmoviewas January 27, 2017
The year is 1979 and Dorothea Fields finds herself in her 50s raising a teenage boy, Jaime, while running a house in Santa Barbara that is always going through renovations. Jaime’s father is not in the picture but who needs a father when your mother rents rooms to a handful of particular individuals ranging from different generations. Director Mike Mills casts three powerful actresses, Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning, to fill the roles of the different women in Jaime’s life and they help create three compelling female characters that pulls you in. The problem? These three exceptional characters are subsided for a coming-of-age narrative that fails to compare to the women that help raised it.
> Set in Santa Barbara, the film follows Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, in a breakout performance) at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion. Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women in Jamie's upbringing - via Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the Fields' home, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a savvy and provocative teenage neighbor.
Being a single parent is tough, it is even tougher when your son is a teenager dealing with romances, the freeing energy of punk music and playing games which entails panting real hard while someone pulls on their diaphragm. After a trip to the hospital, Annette Bening’s Dorothea realizes she might not be able to raise her son by herself and requests the aide of the different women in Jaime’s life. Dorothea does not need help with the physical needs of raising a child in providing shelter and nutrition but the psychological needs of raising in a child in providing the knowledge about life, women and what it means to be a man. Each female was born in a different generation and dealing with their own issues that life has handed them and this leads to Jaime becoming that much more confused about life.
Annette Bening is absolutely fantastic as Dorothea and you grow a connection with her because Dorothea isn’t developed as a motherly character but as a human. It isn’t all Dorothea’s fault as she was raised during the Depression as Jaime loves to points out. She put a barrier around her and her son when his father left and this is shown through her moments of conservatisms despite being a free spirit of sorts. She tasks these females with a job that she should be doing but that doesn’t mean she is taking a step from the spotlight. She joins them to a trip to a punk rock club so she could not only understand her son but these females as well.
The first to tackle the challenge of raising Jaime is Greta Gerwig’s Abbie who is influenced by feminism, punk music and photography. Abbie uses the first two influences to help guide Jaime into an understanding of what it means to be a man. As titles such as Our Bodies, Our Selves and Sisterhood is Powerful find a way onto Jaime’s lap and words such as clitoris stimulation and menstruating find a way into Jaime’s ears, Abbie’s attempts to help Jaime define what a man is by allowing herself define herself through a the perceptive of past males in her life.
This is a trend that could be found in all three women as Ellie Fanning’s Julie uses her promiscuity to rebel against her therapist mother and the world. Ellie, who is closest to Jaime’s age, is the last one to tackle the task given to her and if she wasn’t already sneaking into Jaime’s bed every night, she probably would have avoided the task altogether. Jaime yearns for Ellie and she informs him that he just wants the idea of her. Jaime is confused, after all he is a teenage boy, and all the hormones and feminist literature is not helping.
The definition of what a man and woman is changes every generation. My great grandfather would tell me that a man buys a woman flowers, write her love letters and a bunch of other things males in 2016 no longer consider tasks a man does. Three different females are attempting to define these terms through the scope of their generation and how their generation saw it and unfortunately, majority of those definitions are no longer validated for Jaime’s generation.
20th Century Women takes things one step further and gives us backstories and what is to come of everyone living within the house. There is no real problem with this except for the fact that these backstories don't offer any real reflection which adds to the frustration that the film does not have an arc, well not one I could point out. At one point, I thought the film was concluding as we learn what is to come of Dorothea early on. I was later surprised that there was still an hour left within the film. Dabbled with nostalgia, 20th Century Women would have made for a better coming-of-age if the film decided to follow our titular women than just a boy that connected the three together.
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