Film, Reviews, Screen

Twentieth Century Women film review

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The plethora of compulsive viewing television series which has become the crack of cinephiles, has acclimatised us to story-heavy narratives that specialise in cliff-hangers or surprise twists. But here is a captivating film that eschews the appetite for plot in favour of mood and character and the nuances of rites of passage.

Like Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale or Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Twentieth Century Women is an inspired portrait of a teenage getting of wisdom and a particular moment in time (the ’70s). All three films share a nostalgia rooted in the film-makers’ own biographical chronologies – a tender feeling for the fashion, music and political atmosphere of their own youth which lends these movies authentic heart.

Dorothea (Annette Bening), a stylish and free spirited woman is the single mother of Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), a boy she gave birth to at 40. Dorothea is permanently renovating an historic house in southern California and filling it with odd-bod tenants who are passing through, including William (Billy Crudup), a handsome mechanic who has bartered help with the renovation for rent, but quietly becomes something more to Dorothea.

Now in her mid-50s, the generation gap between Dorothea’s taste and her son’s, her youth in the ’40s and Jamie’s youth in the ’70s has broadened into a chasm. Dorothea wants to bridge that gap by understanding Jamie’s world, but Jamie doesn’t want her to, or need her to. The focus of growing up, it seems, is to fall headlong into that chasm between our experience and that of our parents, not to close it.

Dorothea might be a stylish, chain-smoking eccentric who wears yellow silk pyjamas and writes down the fluctuations of the stock report each day, but she is nevertheless deeply principled and armed with her own ferocious moral agenda.

Annette Bening is in a class of her own when it comes to the portrayal of ageing women with spiky minds and glowing hearts.

Acknowledging that young men don’t want their mothers to supervise their teenage apprenticeship, she enlists the help of her two female tenants, Jamie’s close, but platonic friend Julie (Elle Fanning) who escapes her own therapist mother by staying at Dorothea’s bohemian refuge, and a whacky punkophile Abbey (the effortlessly charming indie It Girl, Greta Gerwig), another free spirit recovering from cervical cancer.

These three women are the twentieth century women in Jamie’s life and it’s through their idiosyncratic tutelage that he picks up clues about how to be a man.

The film is a series of beautifully composed vignettes between Dorothea and Jamie, and their cast of misfit-adoptees, charting Jamie’s awkward initiation into adulthood and Dorothea’s acclimatisation to irrelevance. Interspersed with the drama short quotes from sociological writings of the time, including the essays are contained in Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings From the Women’s Liberation Movement and clips from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. These quirky interruptions economically symbolise the fluidity of passing time and our inability to pause it.

Mike Mills – who made the highly regarded and semi-autobiographical Beginners with Christopher Plummer – has reputedly further plumbed his own life in his portrait of Dorothea, perhaps accounting for the deeply authentic heart to the relationship between mother and son here, as well as for the pop cultural verisimilitude of 1979.

All the performances are close to perfect, anchored in the emotional reality of a tiny, but powerful story and effortlessly at home in the perfectly pitched production design, which never tips over into contrivance. Anyone who was of age in the ’70s will re-enter a world when everything was changing, but not too much. Sexual freedom has graduated from the hysteria of the ’60s but not yet been tripped up by AIDS, punk’s hard edge provocation is comparatively sweet compared to the brutal language of Rap that comes after, and getting high pre-Ice is about getting mellow.

Annette Bening is in a class of her own when it comes to the portrayal of ageing women with spiky minds and glowing hearts. No other actress gets close to the expressiveness of her beautiful face and her ability to make us laugh or cry without even speaking.

The skilful blend of comedy and pathos in this film is what sells it and it comes chiefly from Dorothea, a woman who seems lonely even in the midst of a self-curated family, and at a loss in her attempts to embrace the new. She has grown up dancing to Glenn Miller but William and she hold comical tutorials in dancing to Talking Heads and the new wave bands Abbey is obsessed with. Dorothea, a proud free-thinker, is nevertheless appalled when the younger women open up the dinner table to a conversation about menstruation. The pain and the beauty of Mill’s gentle and revelatory film is that we can only be young once and the world we are young in defines us forever.

2 responses to “Twentieth Century Women film review

  1. Another product placement for cigarets. Can’t we find another way of financing films. Even TV shows like Granchester promote claret smoking. I am boycotting these extended cigaret advertisements.

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