Monday, February 06, 2017

20th Century Women (2016)

20th Century Women is a big-hearted movie full of Talking Heads songs and in many ways that's all I can ever ask of movie entertainment. We know now that this movie didn't manage the Oscar splash that was so clearly part of its reason for being. But what we're left with is first-rate, chockful of appealing stars with chemistry and a really sharp screenplay by director and writer Mike Mills, whose Beginners worked similar regions of human relations and attendant mysteries—warm, surprising, often funny. For that matter, for better or worse, Annette Bening's best movies are also about families falling apart and reassembling in the face of modern living. 20th Century Women fits well with both American Beauty and The Kids Are All Right. Bening plays Dorothea, of Santa Barbara, California, born in 1924. She had a son when she was 40, Jamie. Now it's 1979, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is 15, she is 55, and she can't understand what is happening in the world. The relationship with Jamie's father didn't work—we don't hear much more than that about it, and he's not around. Dorothea lives in a big old house, lets rooms for rent, and is working on renovating the place with one of her tenants, William (Billy Crudup), a mixed-up but amiable hippie burnout. Another tenant is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punk-rocker with cervical cancer. In one priceless scene Abbie tries to explain the Raincoats to Dorothea while one of their albums plays on the turntable. Jamie wants a sexual relationship with 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), who may be the most mixed-up one of all. But it's pretty close—they're all confused, and the Jimmy Carter malaise speech doesn't clear up much for them, though it's included. There's a lot of sentimentality to this. But 1979 is also a critical year in American history, and it's not in this movie by accident. There are lots of tender scenes here, and awkward ones too, but it works. It may be because I feel such a natural affinity for all these daffy, lovable people. It might be a movie aimed at my psychographic. Or it might be all those Talking Heads songs. But this is Bening's kind of movie and she's all over it like white on rice—gentle, acerbic, poised in her confusion. The movie is also more evidence for Mike Mills (I'm going to make a point of seeing Thumbsucker now, for one thing). 20th Century Women is light and often very funny, but behind that it's worrying about our futures. It cares, and it doesn't even have to. It's terrific.


  1. What ab the pretense in the title? There are more movies w/ women in leading roles being made, right? It'll be curious how this changes the way we look at the past. Want to see.

  2. So the title is being arch, I guess, but the blank generation period stuff is familiar, 1979, in my own coming-of-age wheelhouse. And
    I recognized in each of the principal characters someone I know or once knew and they were all easy to pull for. The music made me think of Jennifer Egan's Welcome To The Goon Squad. Loved Gerwig's defense of the Raincoat's DIY aesthetic. And the Black Flag vs. Art Fags scene. Somehow Bening's music, the swing era stuff, wasn't working for me here, though. Nonetheless, her performance is a piece of work, for sure. Early on she bristles, "wandering if you're happy is a shortcut to depression." And later, "if you love your kid you're screwed." Good dark comedy stuff. That ending, though, spieling out each character's obit, was a little deflating and seemed to undermine a chunk of the charm the rest of the movie had built up.