20th Century Women a Surprise Delight


Directed by Mike Mills
A24, 118 minutes, R (language, sexuality)
* * * *

I often rail against movie trailers because they tell us so much of the film that we’ve essentially already seen it by the time we plop ourselves down in the theater. The trailer for 20th Century Women suffers from a different shortcoming: it suggests a frothy lightweight comedy for a movie that is actually far weightier.

Annette Bening’s name has been bandied about for an Oscar nomination for her role as Dorothea Fields and it would be well deserved if she gets one. It's 1979 and Dorothea is  55-years-old and dwelling in a slightly-more-than-a-fixer-upper Victorian in Santa Barbara, California. She’s also the single mother of 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and their semi-bohemian existence is kept afloat by Dorothea’s design job and the rent/sweat equity of two boarders: William (Billy Crudup), a forty-something former mechanic/commune dweller, and 23-year-old Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer compensating for depression induced by hard knocks through immersion in the punk rock scene. Our final principal cast member is 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) who, though a few years older, has known Jamie since grade school and considers him her best friend and Platonic lover and sneaks into his bed—to talk and sleep. This is a terrific ensemble and sets the stage for all manner of generational misunderstanding, especially of the tweener kind. Dorothea was born in the Jazz Age, came of age during the Depression, became a woman in the shadow of Rosie the Riveter, and experienced the Beat generation firsthand. She's a not-always-comfortable in her own skin mix of swing, sultry jazz, Birkenstocks, chain-smoking nonchalance, and parental worry. How does a single woman on the cusp of old age teach her teenage son how to become a man when his youth was that of the Vietnam War, the end of Flower Power idealism, and the emergence of stagflation angst? Her plan—as ill-conceived blueprints often are—seems logical: enlist the aid of an ex-hippie (William), a Gen Xer (Abbie), and a slightly older tweener (Julie) to help Jamie's transition. What could go wrong—other than the fact that Jamie hasn’t requested any intervention, or that maybe Jamie’s erstwhile role models have their own baggage to haul? Or the possibility that maybe Dorothea isn’t as well adjusted as her son?

There are a few very silly and trite sections of the film, but when Director Mike Mills, who also wrote the script, is on the top of his game, 20th Century Women offers superb slices of history and zeitgeist. The film makes very smart use of period music and newsreel footage to flesh out characters and their worldviews. Kudos also for the most effective use of voice-over montage since Amelie and for stylish Instagram-like camera work that uses light streaks and kaleidoscope effects to turn road trips into psychic journeys. Mills succinctly grounds his characters and is very adroit at capturing the chaos and confusion of the late 70s, right down to splits within the punk community between hardcore DIY devotees of Black Flag and cerebral “art fags” who idolized the Talking Heads. Check out a tone-perfect capture of 70s schizophrenia in a scene in which a group f people gather to watch Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech. “That was beautiful,” proclaims Dorothea. “He is so screwed,” replies everyone else. Cut to a clip of Reagan.

Bening is terrific in this film: unflappable, opinionated, stubborn, and witty on the surface, yet vulnerable, clueless, and uncertain inside. Gerwig is superb as a lost young adult who isn’t sure if she wants to be cuddled like a child, or kick out the jams in sullen rage. Young Zumann bears watching, if for no other reason that he wasn’t completely overshadowed by the amazing Elle Fanning, a force of nature who maintains her cool exterior and sparingly doles out hints of her deeper self. She too deserves Oscar consideration. Ignore the trailer and enjoy this one, folks. Lots to think about!

Rob Weir


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