By Jack Dignan
Originally Published on SaltyPopcorn.com.au
The movie-going experience is like magic. No matter what the movie is or whether or not you enjoy it, the act of sitting down in a dark room and embracing, with open arms, a story someone has spent years creating, is magical. It never gets old. But this experience, one I experience multiple times a week (on average), is occasionally elevated to a whole other level. From time to time, the movie on screen manages to speak to me in ways I’ve never seen. It delivers a sensation rushing through my body that not even some of my other favourite films of the year are capable of, and it becomes a cerebral, incredibly personal journey. This happened just recently when I sat down to watch 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, which has become one of my instant favourites from this year.
It’s 1979. Times aren’t what they once were. The people are different, younger and groovier. Rock and roll is big and divisive, and everything is culminating together in this almost too real story that takes a look at what it means to be both a woman and a man. Annette Benning (AMERICAN BEAUTY) plays Dorothea, a middle-aged woman singlehandedly raising her only son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman). While lenient in her parenting skills, Annette is protective of Jamie, constantly envious of those around him. “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never well,” she says to Elle Fanning’s Julie, Jamie’s best friend, in a deeply touching exchange. But deep down, Annette is struggling. As Jamie continues to find himself in more and more compromising situations, Annette, behind Jamie’s back, decides to enlist help in raising her son.
She approaches the three people closest to Jamie, even if he may not consider them to be as close to him as they undeniably are. Julie, whom Jamie has started developing feelings for in recent years, is reluctant, insisting on being his friend not his mother. Red headed music lover Abbie (Greta Gerwig) agrees to help, even with her own set of personal problems getting in the way. And then there’s William (Billy Crudup), the only male role model in Jamie’s life. All aforementioned characters, each for reasons of their own, live together in Annette’s household. Together, their stories give commentary on many of life’s wildest surprises and biggest upsets, and when this wonderful little movie finally hits cinemas, it’s absolutely worth a watch.
20TH CENTURY WOMEN is an obscure, poignant and frequently beautiful movie capable of winning your affection and pulling on heartstrings. It’s moving in its ability to tell a fresh and relevant mother and son tale. It may be set in the 70s, but it’s just as relevant in the context of today’s society. Writer-director Mike Mills has a lot to say on parentage, adolescence, family relations, love and so much more. His screenplay dabbles between sweet, meaningful and funny, all wrapped around a quirky, upbeat plot and genuinely loveable characters.
While his screenplay has a tendency to occasionally lose focus, it is, for the most part, an absolute joy. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, choosing to instead set these characters down their own individual paths rather than convulsing them together in a mix-matched affair of drama. Major characters aren’t given the spotlight until absolutely necessary. For most of the first act, if you can even split this film up into three acts, Billy Crudup plays little relevance outside of the occasional line here and there. His presence in the story is earned. Much like reality, he’s never thrown into the plot for the sake of it. He comes into it when his character needs do, and it’s a brilliant decision. He, like so many other characters, suddenly transforms from this unimpressionable handyman nobody to a hilarious and impactful father figure.
You don’t have to look far to find an indie movie full of meaningful quotes, but 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is so much more than that. There’s wisdom amidst the madness, with a little bit of genius sprinkled throughout, and it’s delivered in a way that’s fresh and funky. The entire thing has a brilliant tempo to it. It isn’t slow, but it doesn’t necessarily delve straight into the plot, either. But there’s an explanation behind that. Part of the reason why this film is as marvelous as it is, is because it doesn’t need its plot to work. Sure, there’s things you can spoil, and I’d personally recommend avoiding such things, but even if you know how this all goes down, it’ll hit you just as the same. Knowing the final result doesn’t lessen the journey experienced along the way.
Each of the characters in 20TH CENTURY WOMEN are all so drastically different in terms of personality, making their clashes and dramas all the more entertaining to watch unfold. Annette Bening delivers an incredibly nuanced, emotional performance as the film’s lead. Her relationship with her son serves as the integral plot device. “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” asks Elle Fanning, “No, I don’t think so,” Bening oh so casually replies. She’s brilliant. The film isn’t exclusively told through her eyes, but when it is, she shines above the rest of the cast.
Every single cast member is fantastic; they all deserve the highest of recognitions. However, it’s Greta Gerwig who serves as the surprise heavy hitter. Gerwig brings to the film a sense of crazy. She’s an unhinged, freedom-seeking woman dealing with a whole handful of medical issues, and she rocks it. Gerwig has slowly risen up my radar in the last few years, especially her appearances in Noah Baumbach films. Here, she’s at the top of her game. Not only is this, I think, my favourite of her performances, but it’s also my favourite of her films.
Delightful, inspiring, powerful, moving, emotional, fresh. There are so many different adjectives I could use to describe 20TH CENTURY WOMEN and all of them fail to give justice to the true beauty found within this movie. While too many scenes may feel like the movie’s ending, this isn’t a movie about the journey. It’s about the feeling. The emotion. The triumph. Please, go out of your way to support this movie. We need more films capturing the beauty of life in the way this one does. It’s an absolute triumph.
4 1/2 Stars
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