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20th Century Women is a film about there being no consensus. Single Mom Dorothea (Annette Benning) is running a boarding house in 1979 Santa Barbara. She invites the women in her life to help raise her son Jamie to ‘be a man’. The invitees are Greta Gerwig’s art punk photographer and Elle Fanning’s Julie, a thoughtful, promiscuous, teen intellectual who Jamie takes a decidedly physical and unrequited interest in. Since the three women are all products of different times and places their viewpoints jostle and pull Jamie in many directions all at once.
In contrast to the story’s America at a time of no consensus, the critical consensus around this movie is unanimous, superfluous praise. Does it live up to the hype? No. It’s only very, very good.
While the film ambles along pleasantly it often confuses the banal with the profound. Characters’ back stories are routinely fleshed out with montages and voice over. As a device it works well but what they’re saying is often something like ‘He grew up with the sixties, Vietnam, they didn’t know Reagan was coming etc etc.‘ You can all but hear the cast nodding sagely in the voiceover booth after each bit of table setting. The fact that these sequences are scored by Brian Eno-ish whalesong underlines that this stuff is really meant to make ya think, y’know?
So why is it good? Well, when the script stops trying to be the great American novel there are likeable humans here. The cast are uniformly excellent and director Mike Mills treats them all with an infectious spirit of sympathy. The film shifts viewpoints and everyone gets a fair hearing. When people argue, no one feels like a straw man (or woman). While some are archetypes they’re fleshed out, tender ones. Partially, this is no doubt due to the semi autobiographical nature of the material. Mills has talked about it being a tribute to the women that raised him. The warmth shows. Dorothea doesn’t understand punk, doesn’t know if she wants a man and doesn’t know if she’s happy or not. She feels like a real person, so.
It’s also refreshing and often funny to see the feminism of the times being espoused by a teenage boy. Yes, it’s maybe a little icky that even a movie called ‘20th Century Women‘ revolves around the male character. Also, yes, Jamie does seem pretty stable as teen boys go and you wonder if Dorothea and the other women are creating fuss where there needn’t be any. Still, once he has a few radical texts in him, he self describes as a feminist, much more so than his Mother, in fact. After he gets in a fight with another boy over the finer points of the female orgasm Dorothea has it pointed out to her that, while the fight is bad, the fact that a hormonal boy his age cares about that stuff is a God damn miracle.
The film’s peaks come when it just relaxes and lets the people be people rather than stand ins for historical and cultural forces. The standout scene is Greta Gerwig exasperatedly shouting the word ‘period’ at one of Dorothea’s dinner parties and making the assembled males join her in a reluctant ‘I am Spartacus’ moment. You have Jamie not knowing what to do with himself, hilarious interjections from Billy Cruddup’s blue collar hippie and Benning playing polite anger perfectly. It’s a moment where all these characters with different attitudes try to argue and fail to come to a conclusion. More than that, it’s fun to watch.
By the end credits you’ll likely care so much about these people that you’ll look past the occasionally trite pseudo-insights and leave feeling like you’ve just read a well written love letter.
20th Century Women is in cinemas from February 10th.
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