Sunday, January 22, 2017

20th Century Women

Mike Mills's 20th Century Women is based on memories of the director's mother, here called Dorothea and played by Annette Bening with a wonderful dry steeliness. Dorothea grew up during the Depression - 20th Century Women is set in 1979 California - and her childhood informs both her resolve as a single mother and her confusion over the way her 15 year old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is growing away from her. Mills got his start as a designer of album covers and director of music videos, disciplines which require a certain economy, yet as a director (here and in 2010's Beginners) he's not afraid to be discursive. Dorothea takes in boarders to pay the bills, and punk photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and handyman William (Billy Crudup, terrific and funny as a man too sensitive for his own good) are a part of Jamie's everyday life. Abbie, William, and Jamie's friend Julie (Elle Fanning) - who spends many nights sleeping platonically in Jamie's bedroom - are each given their own inner lives and all five main characters share in the narration. 20th Century Women is a notebook of incident and memory but it's a well-organized one, as tightly structured as an emotionally resonant bullet journal.

What "plot" 20th Century Women contains come from Dorothea's feeling that she doesn't know how to prepare Jamie for the next phase of his life. She enlists Julie (who is a critical couple of years older than Jamie) and Abbie's help with Jamie's education, hoping that as a trio the three women can prepare him to be a good man. Elle Fanning plays Julie with a sadness that she doesn't usually get to show in other roles; it's a kind of well-meaning self-absorption. Julie, the daughter of a therapist, is unhappy about her own life but not shy about talking to others in therapy-speak. Mills could have pushed these two towards a romance but instead makes Julie's selfishness - she won't face the fact Jamie loves her - an engine for Jamie's growing up. We learn all the characters' fates at the end of 20th Century Women, but Julie's is the most unresolved. Greta Gerwig's Abbie takes a different approach: She starts a running dialogue with Jamie about feminism and punk rock, two subjects that animate her life. The film does a beautiful job wringing poignancy but not sentiment from the late punk years, which Dorothea tells us will come to a close with the election of Ronald Reagan. Mills finds beauty in the image of bodies bouncing off each other at a show and great humor in Dorothea and William trying to sing along to a Black Flag song. It's all an outlet for Abbie, who uses punk to work out the emotions brought on by a cancer diagnosis. Again, Mills gives a very good actress a chance to change how we think of her. Greta Gerwig is a peerless comedienne but in 20th Century Women she gets to be angry, pointed, afraid, and (because the writing is so good) a very specific kind of adult. It's a performance that's good enough for a spot in awards conversation alongside Bening, not to mention a sign of a career reaching new heights of depth and maturity.

20th Century Women would be just a cute trick with its montages of vintage punk photos and period black-and-white shots if it weren't for Annette Bening. Calling acting "brave" is always a tricky thing, but this film succeeds because Bening plays Dorothea as a 55-year old lower middle class mother and nothing more. Dorothea doesn't know she's a hero, and the tension between Bening's natural indomitability and the family's fragile circumstances is very moving. As Jamie reads his mother passages from feminist works Dorothea begins to consider her own emotional needs for the first time in a long while. Bening only gets a few moments alone in the film, but of course she's good enough to convey what's going on in Dorothea's head with just a look. The lives of Dorothea, Jamie, and the other characters don't stop when 20th Century Women ends. This is personal material and Mills is too honest to try to impose a dramatic shape. Dorothea's fate is delivered in a single line of narration because to handle it another way, a flash forward or end titles, would violate the film's gorgeous specificity. We come of age one day at a time, and 20th Century Women is a coming-of-age story in the best sense. This is the story of that time a few women and a few words changed everything.

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