REVIEW: 20th Century Women

5 06 2017

20th-century-womenI’m a bit of a sucker for generation theory, which lumps together similarly aged cohorts and attempts to impose a coherent narrative on their lifespan. So it’s only natural that I’d fall head over heels for Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women,” a film that treats centuries, decades and generations like immutable facts. In his recreated 1979 Santa Barbara milieu, the accident of birth is destiny for every character.

This goes doubly so for the young protagonist of the film, Lucas Jade Zumman’s Jamie, born at the tail end of the Baby Boom and the cusp of Generation X. Unlike his mother’s Greatest Generation, which held together through the Depression and triumphed in World War II, Jamie’s coming-of-age sees the radical promise of the ’60s being subverted into the reactionary, turbulent ’70s. We are more than just our generation, writer/director Mills suggests, but the formative years of our lives explain so much more of us than we are willing to admit.

That’s why Jamie’s mother, Annette Bening’s steely Dorothea Fields, seeks out proper influences for him since she’s a single mother. Luckily, her boarding house welcomes an assortment of characters from punk photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) to wayfaring carpenter William (Billy Crudup). Dorothea’s permissiveness also grants plenty of leeway to the sexually forthright teen Julie (Elle Fanning) to come spend many a platonic night in Jamie’s bed as well. Together, their makeshift family helps prepare Jamie for a world that’s challenging for beta males – or at least male feminists – like himself.

20th Century Women

The irony that these lessons in manliness come primarily from women is not lost on Mills, who mines many of these awkward instructions for comedy. “Men always feel like they have to fix everything for women,” explains Dorothea at one point. Jamie takes in the generalization for its worth and tries to locate himself within it before sheepishly replying, “I’m not all men.” (Ah, before that phrase was a men’s rights activism hashtag!) He’s just a kid trying to make sense of a confusing world, but he’s gifted with insight and sympathy beyond his years. “People from her time never admit anything went wrong,” he relays through voice-over.

While the humor is nice, Mills’ main focus is on taxonomy through his oblique semi-autobiography. “20th Century Women” offers a thoughtful look at how the hopes, dreams and fears of one generation can quickly become quaint to another – and how we can then work to understand and help each other from our own perspective. His film contains multitudes, including the wistfully wise narration of a sage elder stateswoman and the fresh-faced optimism of impetuous youth.

That eclecticism plays out in the form of “20th Century Women” as well. Mills uses both Jimmy Carter’s infamous Crisis of Confidence speech and “Koyanisqaatsi” footage to collide into a thesis, a jarring documentary technique within a captivating narrative space. It’s a bold gambit – and, dare I say, it works better than some of the film’s dramatic scenes with Gerwig and Crudup – yet never disrupts the film’s shrewd observational eye and giant beating heart. B+3stars

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