20TH CENTURY WOMEN
(Dir. Mike Mills, 2016)
This is the kind of film that I wish there were more of – well observed, sharply acted dramas with vulnerable characters dealing with real-life situations.
There are no big confrontations, no convoluted crisis, no tragic circumstances – just people trying to understand each other, and how they fit in with the changing times.
Annette Benning really should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for her performance as 55-year-old single Santa Barbara mom Dorothea, who in an early scene in this 1979-set comedy drama says to her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and her son’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning) that because “history has been tough on men, they can’t be what they were, and they can’t figure out what’s next,” she wants them to help her 17-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) figure out how to be a good man. “What does that even mean these days?” Dorothea asks.
Abbie, who is a flakey artsy photographer with dyed red hair, posits that Dorothea’s live-in hippy handyman William (Billy Crudup) could talk to Jamie about “guy things,” but our movie’s matriarch figure argues that they don’t connect. So Abbie shares her love of punk music with Jamie, playing him albums by the Raincoats, the Talking Heads, Siouxsie and the Banshees, et al, and lending him her feminist literature like Judy Norsigian’s “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
Punk, a major theme in the picture illustrated by montages of photos of the low-fi icons of the era, is a divisive factor between Dorothea and her son.
When Jamie gets beat up by a bully, who spray paints “ART FAG”and “BLACK FLAG” on the sides of Dorothea’s car, she asks Abbie what those words mean. “The people who love Black Flag hate the Talking Heads,” Abbie replies adding, “the punk scene is very divisive.” “You’re all so advanced, aren’t you?” Dorothea responds in exasperation.
This leads to one of the film's best sequences, in which Dorothea and William bond by giving a listen, and amusingly even attempt dancing, to Black Flag and the Talking Heads.
Mixed up in all this is the matter of Fanning’s Julie climbing often through Jamie’s room window to sleep in his bed with him, but not have sex as she feels that that would ruin their friendship.
Julie tells the virginal Jamie about doing the deed with other boys to his irritation. “Half the time I regret it,” she confesses. “So why do you do it?” Jamie asks. “Because half the time I don’t regret it,” she answers.
Zumann, whose only other film credit is SINISTER 2, does a good job embodying Mills’ semi-autobiographical Jamie in all his awkwardness and fragility. The kid holds his own with a pro like Benning, who masterfully plays Dorothea by fleshing her out to be a lot more than a collection of quirks.
It’s also the best performance I’ve seen Gerwig give. The former indie “it” girl has annoyed me in many of her previous parts (talk about being nothing but a collection of quirks), but here she nails her character’s shaky grip on her freaky persona. Gerwig engrossingly inhabits the character of this odd woman who’s dealing with being diagnosed with cervical cancer. It’s the most real feeling work I’ve witnessed yet from her.
Crudup, who also appeared with Gerwig in JACKIE this year, delivers the goods as well, though his role may be the least realized of the ensemble. Fanning doesn’t stand out as much as her cast mates but puts in a nicely understated turn as the sexually curious Julie.
Although Benning got snubbed by the Academy, this film did get Mills a much deserved nomination for Best Screenplay. Mills’ dialogue is richly pointed and funny throughout, which is why I’ve quoted it so much in this review.
Mills based this film on his late ‘70s fatherless upbringing and calls it his “loveletter” to the women who raised him. It works beautifully as such as it honestly portrays these people’s efforts to relate with one another against the backdrop of the sexual revolution gone sour.
It’s like a moment mined from a treasured memory when Abbie gives Jamie a mix tape and says “These are a bunch of songs that I think my life would have been better if they’d been around when I was a teenager, so I’m hoping that if you listen to them now you’ll be a happier and more realized person that I could ever hope to be.”
It says a lot that Mills even includes then President Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech in this fictionalized version of his memories. Dorothea’s reaction to the impassioned address is quite different than her friends’ grouped around the TV, one of which says “he’s finished.”
“I thought it was beautiful,” Dorothea remarks. Same can be said about 20TH CENTURY WOMEN. A film this thoroughly thoughtful and real feeling should not be overlooked.