Love, life, and the struggles of a mother bringing up a son in the the late 70's. The ignorance of a free spirit against the needs of a young man trying to find his true character and beliefs. Living in a bohemian household shared with three like minded spirited people to help pay the rent, his mother tries to establish bonds that he cannot deal with. She cannot deal with his inability to talk, and enlists the help of other females in his life to share the burden of his upbringing. Slowly life unravels for them all without understanding how. In spite of their perceived struggles, they all go on to live defined lives without any serious consequences.Written by
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The scene feels remarkably familiar – Dorothea (Bening), the matron and saint of a Santa Barbara household circa 1979 leans in on her son Jamie (Zumann) listening to "Fairytale in the Supermarket" by The Raincoats. "They know they sound terrible right?" she says. Abbie (Gerwig), Dorothea's avant-garde lodger interjects; "yeah, but it's like they don't care. They got all this feeling but don't have the tools they need to express it it all comes out as passion." Dorothea fixates on Abbie's intonation, like listening to language she's only now grasping. She gets it...but then she doesn't.
Much like Abbie's defense of The Raincoats, Dorothea believes she has all the passion to be a proper mother, but she lacks the right tools to support a son who is growing older with each passing moment. She decides to enlist the help of two young women; Julie, Jamie's best friend and crush and Abbie a free spirit who was recently treated for cervical cancer. The only other man in the picture is William (Crudup) a well-meaning former hippie with a gift for mechanics and a passion for pottery. Between them all, the stalwart Dorothea hopes to quietly guide her son through his formative years which pit her depression era approach, to Jamie's recession era resentments. "Don't you need a man to raise another man?" asks Julie. "No I don't think you do." 20th Century Women starts with competing voice-overs and uses a collage approach to convey the surfaces of each character's inner life. The collages are stuffed to the brim with stills of 1930's gloom and 1960's turbulence all set to audio of proto-punk, Jimmy Carter's Malaise Speech and "As Life Goes By" from Casablanca (1942). It's an awkward mix; one that creates an echo chamber of sorts.
That subtle discordance of people talking at and not to each other, runs through the first half of the film. Jamie's coming-of-age story, a volatile mix of stubborn familial resentment and unrequited love clobbers together with Dorothea's own midlife crisis. "I had Jamie when I was 40." Dorothea says; a fact that can help explain Dorothea's free-range parenting approach, but also helps explain why Jamie's sharp insights cut so deep. For a while there it always seems like its Jamie versus Dorothea, pulled apart by an ever widening generational gap.
Then, like responding to the blessing of a wartime parlay, the factions in this film begin to center and calm. It is during this truce that the film begins to really take off, presenting its characters with vibrancy and humanity while flying through a more nuanced story arc. Almost independently both Jamie and Dorothea learn their goals are one in the same and the differences they have are little compared to their mutual respect for time which presents itself in rainbow tinged tracking shots and subtle fast-forwards.
And at the center of 20th Century Women lies the affable Annette Bening who suitably captures the zeitgeist of a generation no longer with us. While most might pigeonhole Dorothea as a madcap eccentric or worse a passive pushover, Bening wisely lets the character's inner strength shine through. Dorothea is unabashedly a one of a kind lady. She invites strangers to dinner, invites herself to punk clubs, leaves early, and then comes back days later alone. She verves uncomfortably with post-sexual revolution mores yet she quietly takes frank conversations about menstruation in stride. She does all this because she knows that with every encounter, every meeting, every stranger there's a chance for exchange.
Of course 20th Century Women is not without its problems. While Bening, Gerwig and Fanning all do wonders in their roles, Zumann fails to endear the young Jamie to the audience in any meaningful way. Part of it is due to the part as it is written. The film is loosely based on the life of director Mike Mills thus Jamie at times feels more like an avatar than a real teenager. Additionally it's ironic that despite constant paraphrasing of feminist literature, 20th Century Women would struggle to pass the Bechdel Test. Our three women characters orbit Jamie's life and analyze his actions and motives like he's the center of their universe.
Yet, while the film uses the wider Women's Liberation movement as window dressing, allowing the external conflicts of the film to melt away to reveal honest internal pain was a stroke of genius. Genius enough to maybe be interpreted as a meta-text on standard storytelling practices being a form of patriarchal oppression. That however is a discussion for another day. 20th Century Women is an artfully rendered film with plenty to say about the passage of time, the commonality between the generation gaps and the unifying love of mother and son.
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