20th Century Women (2016)
I’m in the middle of 3 days at the cinema, I’ve just come back from an all guns blazing The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) which is as clever and fun as Deadpool (2016) however I don’t want to discuss those film which I really enjoyed. Instead I want to look at a more adult film which I caught last night 20th Century Women (2016) which I came away from feeling chilled and somehow feeling reassured if only for a short time. Coming from Mike Mills previous film Beginners (2010) which I recently learned was the directors fictional account of discovering his father (Christopher Plummer) was gay, that’s after a long absence in his life. It was a similar experience, allowing you to process the imagery differently from the average film, it had an more like a piece of video art with Plummer and Ewan McGregor as Miles. I’m struggling to really define what it was beyond being light, thought-provoking and fun.
I can see the director gets his best material from his own past, this time turning to his mother Dorothea whose played by Annette Bening, who through narration of the characters we build up their personal history, talking directly to the audience, like an open diary that takes a loose documentary. First meeting Dorothea herself who was born during the depression, its 1979 and she’s now 55 years old, a lot has changed during her life already. We get a brief life story to this point, she’s a single mother who starts to doubt her own parenting on only son Jame (Lucas Jade Zumann) aka Mike, with no father in his life how will he grow up to be a fully formed young man. I guess all parents wonder how they are to mold their children especially as they enter puberty. It’s the last chance they can try to leave their mark on them before they make their own way in life.
Living in a house under renovation we see handy man William (Billy Crudup) a mechanic whose helping restore the house after years of neglect and a history that Dorothea doesn’t want to see repeated before the century draws to a close. She comes to the film with a wealth of life experience and the vulnerabilities that come as her emotional baggage. She’s open to what’s going on around, a sense of humor that lets her explore, yet still a woman from another time trying to make sense if this time. Which we see in stills that illustrates the close of the Seventies, punk is dying and Reagan is about to become President, times indeed are changing for everyone.
With such a small cast we have time to explore everyone of them in great detail. From the perfectly cast Bening who has reached a point in her parenting when she feels she needs help from her photographer lodger Abie (Greta Gerwig) who we learn is recovering from cervical cancer who takes on trying to form young Jamie about how to be a man. Coming from a feminist perspective, not long out of the art world of New York she is confident of her body, yet unsure of her future. Whilst Jamie’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning) two years older than Jamie we see that they share a bed, and just sleep, very odd for a teenage couple, yet they are just friends which confuses the audiences and indeed Jamie. She is also asked to help form the young man, bringing with her raw adolescent female experience to her teaching. Both these women are hoping in their own ways to shape Jamie in their image of men or the ideal, which ultimately is an impossible task for anyone.
Turning to Jamie himself, on the surface he’s just another teenage guy having fun, exploring his new-found emotions and pushing the boundaries – nothing new there. However the more time we spend with him we can see that he’s a sensitive guy, open to understanding what it is to be a man, something we all learn to grapple with. Surrounded by female advice alone he can have to choose what works for him. You can see how the directors was formed in this sly autobiography of his formative years. Whilst the rabbit in the hat in William who sits in the background while a lot of the film goes on, we have to work out his position. Before he gets more screen time and we learn his place, his past which was formed in the 1960’s, trying to fit in to stay with his girlfriend. Just wanting to be loved, doing what he can stay happy, very human if you think about it.
I found that the narration by all, especially Bening’s to be confusing half way through, talking from the past about the future, even from the grave as we learn, as if this is her message to the living. At the half way point I thought we were at the end before things start to heat up for the characters, the formation of Jamie really begins to unravel and come back to hit Dorothea. What she wanted the women to do backfires to a point, her ideas of being a man are far different from those who are younger, its a generational gap that leaves her taken aback.
20th Century Women presents us with a time which has long since left us, ideas of what being a man or a woman have changed greatly too. It’s a glimpse back to a simpler time, but was it really, it looks that way – on the surface anyway. It was a refreshing to see cut-away to stills to illustrate ideas, even if they’re recycled, the intent is different as we draw the film to a close. It’s delightfully light at times reminding you not to take life too seriously even when it can be overwhelming at times.