Saturday, May 13, 2017

20th Century Women

Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup, Alia Shawkat
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

"I don't know if we ever figure our lives out and the people who help you, they might not be who you thought or wanted. They might just be the people who show up."

If you had told me in advance that one of the very best films of the past year was titled 20th Century Women, I'd probably laugh. Because, let's face it, many things pop into your head upon hearing or reading a title like that. None of them are favorable, so I can only say I went into it primarily because of the favorable reviews, promising cast and an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination few know it even received. On paper, there are certainly worse choices out there, but that title. Is it a chick flick? Romantic comedy? A historical drama? A period piece?  After actually viewing, or rather experiencing it, and realizing it's none of those things at all, I've determined its admittedly artsy and somewhat pretentious title, while a nightmare for marketing purposes, is nearly as perfect as the film itself. Not to mention it's a real chore trying to come up with a better alternative.

It's difficult to fully articulate what 20th Century Women is "about" since it doesn't have what we're trained to recognize as a conventional movie plot or narrative. It's more of a memory of a specific time and place its characters will never have an opportunity to visit again. Yes, it's a coming-of-age film, on a surface level invoking comparisons to Almost Famous, American Beauty, The Wonder Years, and even a dash of The Ice Storm. And yet it's still kind of the opposite of those, as those comparisons fail to properly convey what Mike Mills creates, or rather maybe recreates here, in simultaneously depicting a watershed year in his adolescence while paying tribute to the life of his late mother without judgment or sentimentality. The title implies a focus on women, and there definitely is that, but what it's really about this young boy becoming a man in a world surrounded by women.

Despite its screenplay nomination, this isn't a "writer's movie" because it's doing too many other things exceptionally well to pigeonhole it. Flashbacks, voiceover narration, title cards, newsreel footage are so seamlessly infused into the narrative it's a small miracle we even know it's there, presenting them in ways both invisible and revolutionary. And then there's the music, which can't be discussed as merely a separate element of the film, but as the foundation on which it's built.
Name a character and chances are you'd likely be able associate them with a song since music isn't just on the soundtrack, but discussed, picked apart and analyzed at many points as a reflection of their lives. And none of this feels forced in any way, instead organically mirroring the generation gap at the story's core.

Santa Barbara, California. 1979. 15-year-old Jamie Fields (Lucas Jade Zumann) lives with his divorced mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening) in a boarding house that she runs. Her tenants include Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk-obsessed photographer from New York being treated for cervical cancer and William (Billy Crudup), a carpenter and mechanic who once spent time on a hippie commune. A frequent visitor is Jamie's best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), a 17 year-old who climbs through his bedroom window to spend the night but won't have sex with him because she thinks it'll ruin their friendship.

Confused by Jamie's non-conformist behavior and finding it increasingly hard to connect with her teen son on any level, Dorothea recruits Abbie and Julie to help unofficially raise him. In doing that, she gets more than she bargained for, learning more about her son and even herself than was intended. And perhaps in the end, maybe learning nothing at all, as their complicated mother-son bond fades into the past and becomes a memory, stored alongside the time they spent with these wildly different personalities living under the same roof.

When the title card indicating the setting and year appears on screen and we see a kid coming up over the hills on a skateboard as composer Ryan Neill's ambient, Brian Eno-inspired 70's score kicks in, you just know to expect something special. And no, this isn't one of those indies full of quirky characters doing zany things. While they all have their idiosyncrasies, they're often steeped in a painful realism, its specificity carrying a universality that should ring true to anyone, regardless of age or era.

Having grown up during the Great Depression and even flown planes in her youth,  the no-nonsense, matter-of-fact Dorothea rarely pulls any punches in her frank assessments of both her tenants and son, even if that brutal honesty rarely extends to her own shortcomings. She had Jamie when she was into her forties and is now faced with the unenviable task of raising a teen boy alone after her unseen husband walked out. That one of the first images we see is his car catching fire in a parking lot speaks volumes about that exit and its repercussions.

Due to her age, the distance in taste and values between Dorothea and Jamie is probably greater than it otherwise would be, so without a male figure in his life, it makes sense in her mind to lean on the two other women in the house to school him on how to treat women. Of course, it's also kind of a terrible idea for obvious reasons, least among the fact that Abbie and Julie don't have themselves completely worked out yet either.  Mills lets us know these characters by framing them within a specific context, their backstories occasionally dispensed via emotionally detached voiceovers from them or maybe even another character, or sometimes documentary-style footage depicting the era through which they've lived.

Books like Sisterhood is Powerful and historical events such as Jimmy Carter's famous "Crisis of Confidence" make their presence known, maybe without warning, but certainly not without purpose. Everything here has a purpose, and with all the tricks Mills has up his sleeve, his greatest one is using all these devices to create this sinking feeling of the passage of time. And as specific as all these people are to the place and period in which they reside, their stay there feels fleeting. It's sad and scary, the magnitude of how short not really felt until the film's final minutes, which emotionally hits like a oncoming train.

Played by Greta Gerwig in a brilliant performance very much unlike the optimistic, free-spirit she's played so naturally in various indies through the years, Abbie's a little deeper, darker and rough around the edges, but unquestionably has her heart in the right place. With her Bowie-like hair she serves as Talking Heads' fan Jamie's entrance into the punk music and their scenes together very much recall the even younger protagonist's discovery of his sister's record collection in Almost Famous, only without the warm, fuzzy feelings accompanying it and substituting The Raincoats for Simon and Garfunkel. But it's through her medical crisis that she and Jamie form their strongest bond, despite Dorothea's eventual objections of Abbie schooling him on the feminist movement, to which she can't relate to at all. Or if she can, came from a generation where putting a label on it would seem ridiculous.

Considering how laid back and flaky Dorothea seems at times, she's often stuck-up, judgy and unpredictably offended at certain things that mark her not as an inconsistently written character, but a richly developed one full contradictions that make her more real and relatable. Bening has to keep flipping that switch between empathy and shattering directness draped in comic sarcasm.  Few others could do it, and while I was never much on board with all the complaining about Bening's continued lack of an Oscar, that she missed out on even just a nomination for this, her most complex work, feels like the cruelest snub yet. Just watch the scene when Jamie accurately sums his mother up by reading a book excerpt and how Bening handles Dorothea's reaction. Cold and true to life, but not entirely unfair. And maybe right.

A less complicated character, but compelling just the same, is Elle Fanning's Julie, who has Jamie befuddled at why her recent promiscuity seems to exclude him, despite them sharing a bed every night. The daughter of a psychiatrist, she thinks she has it all figured out at 17 and isn't shy about providing a free diagnosis for everyone. Of course, this all masks the fact that she doesn't know much of anything and her outdated view of masculinity and advice to Jamie seems so outdated even by 70's standards that it's actually come back around again. Of everyone, she carried the most risk of coming off as one-dimensional given her age and purpose in the story for the protagonist, or so it seems. But created by Mills as a composite of various friends and ex-girlfriends from his youth, and delicately brought to life by Fanning (who owns 2016 with this and the Neon Demon) , she becomes more than just the memory or unrequited crush of a 15-year-old boy. Or more accurately, she's exactly that and all the pain that comes with it, which is why this all works so well.

Initially, it would seem we're meant to root for Jamie and somehow see Julie as a villain for withholding sex, but the movie's too smart for such simplistic shading. They're actually using each other to some extent, with him allowing this to go on with expectations of more, even as she uses him as a therapist's couch for all her problems knowing full well his feelings run deeper. But as one character bluntly tells Jamie, it's his job to put an end to it. She's not presented as a narrative construct who will "rescue" him from the doldrums of adolescence as would occur in a lesser script, but instead as a frustratingly real, unpredictable and not entirely likable girl he'll never end up with. 

It's easy to snicker at the casting of Billy Crudup as William given the nature of his iconic role in Almost Famous, only this character isn't there as a friend or role model to Jamie. It's made clear pretty early on that Dorothea discounts him as a male figure who could connect with her son, mainly because he seems like such a space cadet. But like most of the other characters he defies type or description, with Mills depicting him as kind of a male slut who women use and promptly throw away without getting to know him. It's neat gender reversal, but like everyone else, he's desperate for any kind of human connection, while also amounting to both more and less than he appears on the surface. Unsurprisingly, he's most in tune with older generational outcast Dorothea and the scene where they attempt to "understand" the music Jamie listens to is one of the film's finest.

The late 70's probably wouldn't top many fans or critics' lists as one of the greatest eras in music, but what Mills gets is that your favorite is whatever era you grew up in or associate with your strongest memories. And for what it's worth, he makes as good a case as any for this period with the song choices he makes, which are entirely reflective of not just the characters, but the tone and mood of the picture right up until the closing minutes when two songs are juxtaposed from entirely different eras you'd never expect to hear on the same soundtrack. And that right there is the movie, as different people with unique personalities and at various stages in life all randomly converge in this time and place. The saddest part is that they may never see each other again, as is often the case with the most important, influential people in our lives. They're here, make their impact and then, just as quickly, they're gone.

The semi-autobiographical events Mills recounts all took place the year I was born and it's kind of eye-opening since no one ever tends to know much about the events of their birth year. It's often just a set of numbers with little context since all the major milestones occur within the following decade and beyond. He assigns meaning to that number and to objects and possessions, alerting us to what a turning point in time this was for those who lived through it. From then on, things changed for them and couldn't possibly return to how they were. Sometimes the most important important questions to ask when a movie concludes is whether you'll miss the characters when they're gone and whether you care what happens to them after the credits roll. We do actually find out what their futures hold beyond that, even as we're still willing to give anything for an extra minute with all of them.

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