Saturday, January 21, 2017

Review: "20th Century Women" is a Great Big Hug of a Movie

Scene from 20th Century Women
In 2011, director Mike Mills raised eyebrows with his highly acclaimed Beginners, which chronicled the life of an elderly man revealing that he was gay. The most surprising thing was that this comedy was a bit autobiographical to Mills' actual life. Even then, he showed a knack for creating an indie film with artistic flourishes that didn't overshadow the main drama. In his follow-up, 20th Century Women, he explores the other parental figure of his life: his mother. The story takes place in Santa Barbara, California in 1979 and focuses around a 15-year-old being raised by three women. It's a film that's just as personal and reflects the strength and diversity of its female cast while also telling a powerful and candid story that will resonate for anyone with close ties to their own mothers. 

With the absence of a father, there is concern over how 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) will become a man. He doesn't relate to his mother Dorothea's (Annette Benning) choice for a role model (Billy Crudup): a home designer who tries to bond with him while rebuilding their house. Instead she turns to the only other people she knows in her life: a tenant named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie's friend Julie (Elle Fanning). It isn't the traditional family dynamic, but together the story shows how he becomes a man with compassion and curiosity for women. He's just as frustrated as any other teenager is, but he's likely more informed on feminist literature than most people are by that age.

The film sets aside time to explore each character's life throughout the decades. For Dorothea, this is her life during the Great Depression and World War II. For Abbie, it is her fascination with being an outsider. For Jamie, it is a story told from the mother's perspective, where he was born into a world where presidents fell down and technology was rapidly changing. It would be difficult to understand Jamie in a matter of years, especially with the go-go 80's lingering at the film's end. Still, the desire to relate connects these characters and shows these characters as loving as well as flawed; willing to find adventure while also going through their own developments that include pregnancy scares, cervical cancer, punk music, and simply trying to relate to each other.

Much like Abbie's art career, the film feels connected solely by a style reminiscent of the era. The music is vibrant, jumping from Louie Armstrong to The Clash while the camera speeds through mundane moments for artistic effect. It's a world of enlightenment and joy, best captured when the film expertly pairs President Jimmy Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech with a montage that heavily features Koyaanisqatsi. Whether or not it's more than tangential, it becomes experimental art that elevates the conventional drama to a poignancy and revelation that is unique to the teenage years of anyone. They may be imperfect at times and full of tragedy in others, but there's a fascination with discovery that fuels the mind during this time, and it all depends on who your mentors are. For Jamie, they include women eager to talk openly about sex, which leads him to feminist literature and find a deeper respect for women amid a period that Dorothea suggested was tough for men to be men.

The entire cast is stacked with excellent performances. Benning leads the pack with the understated by constantly endearing mother role. Her reluctance to embrace the modern age manages to be played for laughs without skewing into farce. Watching her react to her son describe punk music resonates off the screen, making Dorothea feel real. Fanning is equally engaging and finds plenty of endearing fodder in a character who wishes to be wild, but is secretly timid. Gerwig shines through her ability to find reason to dance to almost anything. Speaking as a lot of the film is artistic montage, this happens a lot. However, she also gets a heartwarming story that goes through personal struggles that make her art chic character more than parody. Together, they create a powerful central cast that shows that women can be interesting and three dimensional. Somebody just has to write the parts for them.

20th Century Women is a film that shows a different side to the family dynamic. With a killer soundtrack that mixes classic pop and art rock, it becomes an intimate vision of life that also features plenty to love from the visual pallet. It's a tale that captures the late 70's as well as most of the key events before and after. Even if the film is about a point in time, it still feels like a bigger statement about how women exist in the world. They have made a difference, even if they haven't always been thanked. Speaking as this is Mills' ode to his mother, it makes sense how much she meant to him. It shows in every last detail of the film from its heart to its humor. It is a film so full of life and joy that it becomes something more than an autobiographical story. It becomes a nostalgic experience for the audience, forcing themselves to wonder what their childhoods were like. Mills also proves that he's a great director with great stories to tell. The only question is which family member he will be talking about next.

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