Sunday, October 09, 2016

“20th Century Women”– Movie Review



This weekend, I attended the Centerpiece of The 54th New York Film Festival, screening the World Premiere of “20th Century Women”, a new comedy-drama starring Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. 


A pair of young women collaborate to help a mother raise her teenage son – but can this form of group female parenting succeed?


In 1979, 15 year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is trying to grow up under some less than ideal circumstances in Santa Barbara, California.  For one thing, his mother, Dorothea (Bening) gave birth to him when she was 40; at 55, she’s having a particularly difficult time keeping up with all of society’s changes.  Also, she and her husband are divorced; he moved to the east coast and remains both geographically and emotionally distant from Jamie.  Despite the fact that a boarder named Willie (Billy Crudup) is there to help with renovations on her house, Dorothea is concerned that her son has no male role model around to help him reach adulthood.

Inspiration strikes Dorothea through two unlikely sources:  Abbie (Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning).  Abbie is an aspiring photographer in her mid-20’s who also rents a room in Dorothea’s expansive house.  A punk rocker, she is a grown woman still young enough to mentor Jamie in male-female relationships.  Julie, however, is closer to Jamie’s age – in fact, they have known each other since childhood.  Given Julie’s friendship with Jamie, Dorothea believes she would also be an ideal choice to lend a hand.  Dorothea asks them both to help her with an increasingly aloof Jamie – they agree, albeit reluctantly. 

Over time, it appears Dorothea’s plan is working – but maybe a little too well.  For one thing, Abbie introduces Jamie to a world he may not yet be ready to deal with; she’s taking him to punk rock nightclubs and has him read books about feminism and female sexuality.  Julie, on the other hand, may be a different problem altogether.  It turns out that she has her own issues with her mother and winds up sneaking into Dorothea’s house to spend time with Jamie – in fact, Julie sleeps with Jamie in his bed, despite the fact that they have a platonic relationship (and despite the fact that she otherwise leads a rather promiscuous lifestyle).  With Jamie under the influence of all these women, will he turn out a well-adjusted man or has Dorothea made a huge mistake? 


In a way, watching “20th Century Women” recalls some of Woody Allen’s movies – specifically, “Radio Days” and “Hannah And Her Sisters” come to mind.  Although “20th Century Women” is set in Santa Barbara, it’s like “Radio Days” in the sense that a narrator reminisces fondly about his youth; the similarity to “Hannah” is clearly because it’s a story about women, lovingly told from a man’s perspective.  The film is more episodic than plot-driven – a risky undertaking which only works in this instance because the audience can find authenticity in both the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.

The excellent cast of “20th Century Women”, headed by Bening, is worthy of boasting; the finely crafted screenplay by director Mike Mills gives them rich characters on which to build their superior performances.  Both the times and the narrator’s memories of these women are highly romanticized, but things are not always rainbows and lollipops; health scares, political problems, cultural evolution and feminism’s societal impact add textured overtones to the story.  These are welcome additions – without them, “20th Century Women” would almost be mistaken for a fairy tale. 

What’s so striking about this movie is how adoringly and respectfully the narrator recollects the women who had a strong hand in raising him to be the man he became.  The film, at its essence, is basically a tribute to women – especially, women who served as a support system during the crucial period in the time of an adolescent young man.  Sometimes, the timing of when you see a movie can be an interesting coincidence.  Given fairly recent events by the Republican candidate for president, it’s reassuring to remember that some men do indeed appreciate women for who they are rather than simply how they look.      

20th Century Women (2016) on IMDb

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