One of the common lamentations heard during awards season each year, for as long as I can remember, is the lack of opportunities for strong lead female performances, in a category largely overcrowded and dominated by men. 2016 might be the first year where the opposite happens to be true, where complementing a category that seems to have narrowed down to two choices, Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington, is a female performance category brimming with most of the year’s greatest examples of the profession. Opening across the country in wide release, after a few markets around the holidays, is 20th Century Women, a film which contains not one, not two, but three incredible performances joining the crowd, in a remarkable, studied exploration of the lives of three women around the end of the 1970’s.
Annette Bening turns in the performance of her career as Dorothea, a middle-aged single mom living in Southern California, struggling to raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) as he stands, or more like teeters, on the cusp of manhood. Her SoCal-chic, liberal parenting methods, a measured dose of realism and control on the other side of the free-spirited sixties soon clash with paternal instincts when faced with Jamie’s increasingly erratic adolescent antics, such as trendy auto-asphyxiation (everybody else was doing it), and staying out all night for an impromptu trip to Los Angeles to see a punk rock concert. Concerned that she is incapable of relating to Jamie at his level, and anxious to raise him correctly, and not into another male chauvinist meathead like it is suggested his father is, and like many of his male friends at school clearly are, echoing the prevailing mood of a post-sexual revolution country in transition teed-up for the Reagan years, Dorothea turns to one of her two borders (presumably her primary source of income), Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a strong, independent young woman, and Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), to help instill proper values in him, and help him grow into the kind of man a woman can truly respect.
Dorothea’s words project a kind of laissez-faire approach to parenting, treating the child as an adult, or a real person capable of making their own decisions and living with them, right or wrong, no doubt fed by her politically liberal outlook, reinforced in a hilarious scene where she and a houseful of friends are watching President Jimmy Carter’s speech on the evils of American consumerism, and she sees beauty and truth where others only see his inability to be re-elected. But as with many great performances, Bening’s strengths here, and the characteristics that make Dorothea into a very real character, are the moments between the words, the speechless moments, and the reactionary moments, where a furrowed brow, or a confused sigh, or sly projection of sarcasm and contempt serve to draw out the internal conflict between who she is inside and who she is becoming, against the contradiction of a quickly changing world that still moves in microscopic increments with respect to the gender gap, and against her quickly changing son, who has only a very short time to engender a personal and social outlook that will stay with him for the rest of his life. Bening’s performance is raw and real, and never neglects to make Dorthea the hero of her own story, and holds her responsible for being the same to someone else.
Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning are also the best they’ve ever been here. The former, drawing from her mumblecore roots, and many roles directed by Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach, successfully navigates the more hyper-rhythms (by comparison) of a mainstream production, and grounds a character forced to grow up faster than she should have, through a cervical cancer scare which has left her more whole, and more confident in herself and convictions, leading her to embrace her gender as self, and become a proponent of intellectual feminist theory, which she imparts to Jamie in a series of terrific sequences, one of which leads to him getting into a fistfight with kids at the skatepark over how to properly stimulate the clitoris. Elle Fanning, coming off a remarkable turn in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon earlier this year, pulls off the confused teenage girl with great aplomb, capturing the uneasy balance of a woman who at turns is supremely self-aware and then unsure of anything, a potentially dreadful cocktail when your best friend is in love with you, as Jamie is. These three performers (including Zumann) hold their own in many scenes where Bening is absent, and given top-notch material by writer/director Mike Mills that many lesser comedies in this vein would die for, they are responsible for much of the film’s witty comedy, heart and tenderness.
Would 20th Century Women be satisfied as merely an occasionally serious coming-of-age tale it surely couldn’t be seen as such an Oscar contender. No doubt aware of this, Mike Mills suitably opens up his film to anticipate the impending changes over the next few decades in the United States and across the globe, during a few montages where a much-older Jamie narrates the fate of the three women closest to him while growing up. It appropriately takes the film from its niche trappings of 1970’s Southern California (and I can already hear the cluster of men ready to label it a “chick flick”) into the universal, resonating with anyone who possesses a beating heart. And while Mills does run the risk of coming across coy and obligatory with these touches, they are nonetheless vital in overcoming a dismissal that the film is dated, a relic, or a thing of the past. A big moment to that effect is the attention given to the rivalry between punk rockers and “art fags,” exemplified through the music of hardcore band Black Flag and Talking Heads, illustrating that there was a time when it was assumed one couldn’t appreciate both. These days, most people who like one also like the other, and yet we still have similar disputes. The time and the place are absolutely critical to this film, as they are to anyone stuck at a crossroads where they feel they are working more than living through life. Nobody can know what will happen tomorrow, a privilege this film’s omniscience affords itself, but it’s sufficient and fulfilling enough to know that whatever does happen will try to change you, and that understanding who you are and what you are is not only important for the self, but for those closest to you.
Yes, 20th Century Women is a coming-of-age story. It’s also an introduction to post-graduate feminist theory, a sly indictment of gender roles, a mirror upon which to reflect on more than just image, a time capsule that comments on modern society, and a microcosm of the world at large. The greatest films are always keyed into the lives we live and the world we interact with. It’s a shame this film couldn’t be seen as more of a victory lap, through a different outcome of the United States Presidential election; but instead it serves as a keen reminder that yes indeed, there is always more work that must be done.
The Verdict: Rave