Thursday, January 5, 2017
20TH CENTURY WOMEN: A NEW AMERICAN CLASSIC
Directed by Mike Mills, starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, and Billy Crudup.
Destined to become a new American classic, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN looks back to the late 1970s and forward to the beginning of the new century. All that transpired in between, feminism, group encounters, social change, drugs, and challenges to gender identity are here, captured in this epic and touching story of a 55-year old single mother, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), coping with cultural change, shifts in relationships with her teenaged son, Jamie, and hesitating about future relationships with men. Bening’s performance is a miracle, an intricately nuanced portrait of a woman that is wry, confused, gentle, angry, and distraught by turns. Sometimes the mother, she is otherwise the child in the ways of a changing world; sometimes the teacher, she is more often the student. It is certainly among the finest performances of the year. I wonder if Bening, who was very much a young lady in the ‘70s, isn’t drawing upon her own experiences during those years; yet here she is, playing a mature woman coping with that world. In short, she meets herself coming and going, the young lady, then, and the older woman, now. This could mean that this film can connect with audiences of both groups.
Although the film is centered in 1979, Bening’ narrative voice keeps flashing forward to the end of the century, anticipating the fates of all those herein. Her large house is populated by several boarders, including Julie (Fannng), an independent girl trying to differentiate between love and sex; Abbie (Gerwig), a punk artist photographer coping with cervical cancer; and William (Crudup), the mechanic below stairs with a hankering for Dorothea. Her son, 13-year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), has a long way to go in understanding his mother, the young ladies (with one of whom he is desperately in love), and his own budding adolescence. He is, in short, surrounded by women, with all the confusions that can entail for a young boy. In the pressure cooker of that house, everyone crowds in upon another.
The wealth of incident and detail defy brief analysis here. Music, books, movies, and television shows (including a prescient Presidential Address by Jimmy Carter (“A Crisis in Confidence”) dot the cultural landscape. There are times when I think in its intelligence and compassion, this is the greatest movie I’ve seen in a longtime, the sort of intricately-tooled tapestry I remember from the 70s movies of Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, and John Cassavetes. But at other times, I must admit, the dialogue and situations become too precious, the characters too precocious, when I can’t recall ever meeting characters like this back in the 70s (unless it was in those movies back in the 70s!).
With the compassion of a Jean Renoir, director Mike Mills shares his love for these characters with us. At the end, we can only shrug our shoulders in recognition of our commonality, and remember with affection the time we have had together. In that regard the rendition by Rudy Vallee of “As Time Goes By” on the soundtrack resonates with a sweetly nice poignancy.