20th CENTURY WOMEN B
USA (118 mi) 2016 d: Mike Mills Official site
When you were born, I told you life was very big and unknown. There were animals and cities and music. You’d fall in love, have passions, have meaning. But now it’s 1979 and nothing means anything and I know you less every day.
—Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening)
Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like, know your life is not going to be anything like that.
—Abbie (Greta Gerwig)
A film that attempts to be like DONNIE DARKO (2001), only without all the cool stuff, where instead everything is analyzed and over explained to the point of exhaustion. While it’s something of a fairy tale version about growing up in America during the Jimmy Carter era, just before Reagan’s appearance, it all feels like an end to an era of innocence. The question, is why did it have to feel so innocent? And the answer is this is filled with cultural references about growing up in an overly pampered youth, where you literally have no responsibilities to speak of. Hell, in this film, you don’t even have to go to school, as it cleverly reveals a multitude of ways to get out of going to school. While it deals with adolescence, where in every middle class life the child is always the center of attention, yet in this life, the kid has no household chores or responsibilities, no male friends, never hangs out with friends, never spends any time on the phone pursuing the opposite sex, never does any homework or spends time in school, yet is remarkably smart, as if he was born that way. The film simply leaves out any world of reality to create this otherworld that exists only in the movies. Actually, the film it most resembles is Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS (2000), which follows the fictional life of a boyish young teenage kid as he follows around various rock bands as an aspiring journalist writing for Rolling Stone magazine in the early 70’s, where the experience is akin to an innocent kid gloriously losing his virginity by the self-indulgent and raucous behavior of rock stars. Well, trade the women’s movement for rock bands and you ostensibly end up with this film, which follows the life of a 15-year old boy, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), as he’s raised by a single mom who didn’t get pregnant until her forties, Dorothea (Annette Bening), along with the help of two other women, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), an art photographer in her twenties fascinated by the emerging underground punk scene, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a few years older than Jamie, but a girl he’s known all his life, which includes having sexual feelings, but she insists they remain strictly friends with no hanky panky. Nonetheless, she has a habit of climbing into his window at night, stripping down to her underwear and slipping into bed with him, like an expression of sibling closeness, actually spending more time in his home than her own. So basically, he’s a sensitive and impressionistic boy being raised by a three-women collective, suggesting this offers him a uniquely different perspective on life.
Set in Santa Barbara in 1979, life is good, as there is no sign whatsoever of racial diversity, as this is middle class white suburban America at its aspiring best, where kids are well educated, live on tree-lined streets, and are on a fast track to success, as they can go to the best schools in the country and have access to the best jobs, where chances are they’ll be more affluent than their parents. This is the world they’re born into, where privilege is built into the status quo, yet they’re blind to this reality, knowing no other world exists but their own. The self-centered nature of the film is undeniable, yet the director’s unflappable recollection of all the cultural details of the era make this feel more like a time capsule visit back into 1970’s America. While it has its quirky charm and offbeat humor, it also feels like a film out of time, lingering in an era that no longer exists, or never existed, really, where it remains questionable whether this has anything relevant to say about our modern era. Contrast this film with Little Men (2016), for instance, another exploration of alienated teenage youth, yet it pulsates with a modern vibrancy that this film lacks, holding a more limited appeal. If this film speaks to you, if you’re on the same wavelength, then more power to you, perhaps it’s enlightening for some, but the question is does it resonate with a wider audience? Does it have universal appeal? And it falls very short in that capacity, feeling closer to Captain Fantastic (2016), substituting Annette Benning for Viggo Mortensen, adding feminism and the women’s movement for 60’s counterculture, where earlier cultural time periods have a hard time fitting into today’s myriad of modern era complexities. Like the director’s other films, he tends to draw on his own personal experiences, from a 17-year old teenage angst story in THUMBSUCKER (2005) to being raised by a father that announces late in life that he’s gay in Beginners (2010), while this film, more of a tribute to his mother, is loosely modeled on Mills, born in Berkeley, being raised by his mother and sister. While much of this describes the laid back California culture of the West coast, what’s missing is the pervasiveness of the pot smokers, as their influence cannot be minimized. Instead what we see is a sympathetic yet existential single mom who keeps trying to figure out her son’s place in the world, who tends to be a bit of a distanced, but overprotective mother hen, though for his part, Jamie seems fairly well adjusted, where his absent father, divorced some time ago, is simply never mentioned and is not part of the landscape.
The entire film unfolds in a flashback mode, a constant reminder that what we see onscreen is already long gone, with various characters providing their own narration, though we largely follow the film on two tracks unfolding simultaneously, where we become more intimately acquainted with Dorothea and her son Jaimie, as their viewpoints comprise the majority of the film. They live in a large house that’s being rehabbed, but in slow motion, as little progress is made, though William (Billy Crudup) is a handyman living on the premises, though his real passion is working on old vintage cars. Dorothea and William both seem like leftovers from the 60’s, though neither knew one another at the time, so experienced it in their own ways. While William is more of a drifter, not really rooted to one place or another, Dorothea remains rooted to her home, as it provides the security she needs, spending the start of each day reviewing the stock reports, rarely seen without a cigarette in her mouth, where she has a tendency to latch onto strangers and invite them to dinner, as this gives her a sense of broadening her reach without ever leaving her home. Jamie is in tune with the quirky rhythm of his mother, and while she’s found a way to be happy and/or content with herself, Jamie is in constant search for whoever the hell he is, filled with plenty of insecurities and doubts about his own abilities, yet has a near mirror relationship with Julie, as they both tell each other everything and are always there to support each other, so there’s little lingering negativity between them. Abbie is the other tenant, who easily stands out as the most individualistic and most in touch with the times, defined by her punkish exuberance and bright red hair, where she is perhaps the only one in the entire film who spends much time soul searching, so in a way, she becomes the real star, emblematic of the film’s spiritual center, as she’s the character most in the audience will identify with. For some mysterious reason, Dorothea begins to think she’s losing touch with Jamie, that he’s getting away from her, unable to penetrate his teenage angst, so she enlists the help of both Julie and Abbie to act in a surrogate role to watch over and help guide him along the way. When he goes out, his mother has no idea who he is, but they are often with him, so the three of them act as a collective nurturing force, all claiming to have Jamie’s best interests in mind.
The problem with the multiple voiceovers is the film becomes overly analytic, where there’s too much interior explanation for what’s happening, as the film doesn’t rely upon a plot structure, but is more open ended, yet leaves little space between the lines for the viewer to ponder what they’re witnessing, other than a recreation of the time period, as instead it’s all laid out for you. For instance, as Abbie and Jamie attempt to explain to Dorothea the cultural appeal of the Raincoats, THE RAINCOATS Fairytale in the Supermarket - YouTube (2:57), she finds it mostly a lot of noise, as she’s a sucker for Bogart and Hollywood romanticism, preferring the sound of 1940’s big band dance music. Jamie tells her, “Pretty music’s used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is,” while Abbie is more to the point, “What happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it,” claiming if the band was based on virtuosity, it would minimize the energy and detract from the open display of raw expression. Part of punk’s appeal was its very limited technique. While Julie tries to teach him how to smoke and walk like a man, Abbie hands him feminist texts like Our Bodies, Our Selves and Sisterhood Is Powerful, which he takes to heart immediately, amusingly showing how others in his peer group are not so enamored, especially when he suggests to a skateboard freak bragging about sex that his girlfriend might be faking orgasms, as he failed to properly stimulate her clitoris. The next day their car is spray painted Art Fag on one side and Black Flag on the other. Once again, Abbie comes to the rescue suggesting there is a deep divide between the male aggressive, hard corps punks like Black Flag and new wave art bands like the Talking Heads, who have an altogether dreamy quality about them. While the cultural contrasts are designed to help him become a decent man, making this one of the few films that seriously attempts to deal with the current crisis of male anxiety in adults, looking back at the root of the problem, where one of the things the film gets right is capturing the interior emotional devastation in a mother watching her son gradually grow farther and farther away from her, knowing it’s a mandatory rite of passage, but hating it anyway. Too much time, unfortunately, is spent searching for an existential meaning and purpose that simply isn’t there, no matter how hard you look. While there’s actually poetry to be found in President Carter’s “Crisis in Confidence” speech, it becomes a prominent theme of the film.
I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy…I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might. The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation...In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.
Cinema, which allows people to speak from beyond the grave in the form of home movies or archival footage, resorts to unorthodox methods in resurrecting significant cultural signposts, where we have the luxury to look back at turning points in history and examine what might have happened if men (and women) had taken the message of the women’s movement more to heart and instead of insisting on dominating the power structure, not get so embattled and defensive about the cultural message, which is really about sharing power and learning to treat people equally, suggesting the mistreatment of women is the number one human right, a view that was labeled radical at the time. Evidence of male insecurity has never been more openly displayed than on our current national landscape, where the idea of treating one another with equal respect remains a deeply divisive issue that the nation has still not come to grips with half a century later, as evidenced by the sexually predatory and misogynistic rants of the newly elected American President, giving rise to the 2017 Women's March - Wikipedia, the largest one day protest in American history, joined by other similar marches around the world, where the best sign seen at the Women’s March in Chicago, January 21, 2017, “I wouldn’t want somebody to regulate my penis.” Unlike the punk scene of the 70’s and 80’s that quickly flared out, women around the world aren’t going anywhere, and deserve to be included in any discussion about the future. While the film is a celebration of a period of social history that gave rise to the women’s movement, it’s also clear that this remains a sadly unachieved political agenda, as women remain a distinct minority in any national debate, outnumbered four to one in the U.S. Senate, even more than that in the House of Representatives, and evidenced by the irrefutable fact that no woman has ever been elected President of the United States.