20th Century Women – 5 stars

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An affecting confluence of nostalgia and deep emotion born of human connectedness, this film presents as a standard coming of age tale, but it is a great deal more.  We find 15 year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zuman) growing up in Santa Barbara in the late 70s with his idiosyncratic mother (Annette Bening, a mix of traditionalist and free thinker), who raises him in a home in which she rents out rooms to people who will eventually become instrumental in his upbringing.  Her cockeyed plan at the outset is to rely on one of her renters, a feminist photographer (Greta Gerwig), and an older neighbor teen (Elle Fanning) to teach her son how to be “a man.”

Bening beautifully renders a woman grappling with her own doubts, confusing times (she is referred to as a daughter of “the Depression” by her son as if she has an illness, and at one point she notes, “I think history has been tough on men.  I mean, they can’t be what they were, and they can’t figure out what’s next”), and the establishment of her own values (my favorite of her observations is “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed”).

There are too many pitch-perfect, smart scenes to recount, but some merit mention, particularly the scene where the house handyman (Billy Crudup) who – having been deemed an insufficient role model because he and the boy do not connect – signs on as Bening’s guide to the culture, and in particular, punk rock. When Bening and Crudup, who is a bit of a hippie, attempt to dance,  first to Black Flag and later to Talking Heads, the result is a joyous rendering of representatives of two distinct tribes trying to understand the totems of a third.  The scene is almost as funny as when Gerwig insists that everybody at a house dinner party not only acknowledges her period, but says the word “menstruation” out loud.  And Fanning’s advice to the boy after he corrects a neighborhood kid boasting of his sexual prowess with a dissertation on the mechanics of the clitoris (for which he catches a beating) is both cruel and exceedingly wise.

In the wrong hands, this film would be a series of snappy vignettes, one more quirky than the next, and the result would likely have been cloying and unsatisfying.  But writer director Mike Mills never slums for your laughs or tears, and he stitches together the experiences of the characters seamlessly through the process of brief biographical snippets.  Better yet, he has a strong sense of what is authentic, and the film is loaded with grit and heart.

Some will accuse the picture of dragging, but I felt it simply took its time, allowing the feel to make the same deep impression as the dialogue, and nothing felt gratuitous.  One of the best from last year.

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