Sunday, January 22, 2017

"20th Century Women"


As 20th Century Women heads toward its eloquent conclusion, the movie pauses its freeform story to focus on a speech Jimmy Carter gave in July 1976.  At the time, they called it the "malaise" speech, but it's become better known by its most important phrase -- the Crisis of Confidence speech.

Dorothea Fields -- whose last name recalls an iconic fictional feminist introduced in the 1970s, Garp's mother Jenny -- has gathered her 15-year-old son, Jamie, and an eclectic group of friends around the television to watch the speech.  They think it will ruin Carter (it did), but Dorothea finds it lovely and meaningful.

It speaks to her because Dorothea, who is played magnificently by Annette Bening in a performance filled with weird quirks and contradictions, has been doubting herself more than a little.  Much like a more rooted, real version of T.S. Garp and Jenny Fields, Dorothea and Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, who's superb) they live in a rambling old house that has become a sort of home for wayward souls.

They've got two tenants, William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who is helping restore the place, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a lonely young woman who leans toward the artistic, even though she's not sure quite why.  Somewhere close by lives Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually promiscuous but insecure girl who's kind-of-sort-of got a crush on Jamie, though she sleeps with the other boys.

Dorothea has a tendency to invite strangers over to dinner and to smoke too much, but she rarely ventures beyond the confines of the house.  It's a place she took over from some hippies who used it as a house of free spirits, whose unwillingness to conform to bourgeois rules like paying the mortgage on time left it falling apart.  Dorothea is trying to put it back together, but she seems in little rush.  She claims not to identify with its previous occupants but bears more than a little resemblance to them, and lacks a clear vision for the future.  She's not OK with how things are, but, yes, she is.

Constantly, both mother and son refer to her childhood during the Depression, as if that explains everything.  But in fact, Dorothea can't explain anything about herself, and is as surprised as anyone to find herself here, in a run-down mansion outside Santa Barbara, playing mother hen to people who aren't really her family.

After a remarkably foolish peer-pressure experiment lands Jamie in the hospital, Dorothea frets that he's not getting enough guidance.  Unwilling to see their own limitations, she enlists Julie and Abbie for help in raising her son and explaining the world to him.

This being 1979, it's not practical, parental advice they offer, but explorations of sexuality and feminism.  With (almost) no prurient interest at all, Jamie absorbs their input, reading essays by feminist authors, wondering about sex, and taking tentative steps into life beyond childhood.

20th Century Women is as rambling and loosely structured as Dorothea's house, but that proves to be its charm.  It never coalesces into a cohesive narrative, which will likely infuriate or bore some people, but it always demands attention.  As Dorothea comes to realize the inherent folly and heartbreak of asking other people to help raise her own son, she also recognizes just how quickly her son is becoming a man, and how little time she'll have with him.

In its most mundane moments, 20th Century Women seems random, haphazard, more a collection of observations than a fully realized film -- but then it finds its footing, takes off and soars, especially in some beautiful moments that let each character narrate the future arc her (and his) life will take.

With more wit and substance than last year's Everybody Wants Some!! and without that film's near-fetishism for recreating the period, 20th Century Women vividly recalls a time when the whole world lost its confidence even as it barreled toward an unclear but potent future.

Bening finds the messy, anxious, excited heart of a woman who wants to embrace change but has no idea how -- unaware that everyone around her shares the same worries.  Gerwig and Fanning are very good, too, as the young women who build a foundation for Jamie as best they know how (which is not particularly well).  They're joined by Crudup's surprisingly awkward masculinity as the only grown man in a house filed with women he can't help but be attracted to.  But it's Zumann who makes the biggest impression -- no small feat next to Bening -- as Jamie, who instinctively understands the need to be better as a man than he was as a boy.

Writer-director Mike Mills has a lot to reflect on here, no doubt 20th Century Women was as inspired by his own experiences as it was, maybe unintentionally, influenced by John Irving's tale of another boy and his mother.  But it's good, sometimes even great, material, and it carries the ring of truth to it -- hard-won truth, the kind you only get by looking back and remembering the little things you thought you forgot, the crises of confidence you thought you overcame, realizing many years later, they are what became you.

Viewed Jan. 22, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


4 / 5

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