Tuesday, January 24, 2017
“Twentieth Century Women” – a film review by William Falcetano
“Twentieth-Century Women” is a coming-of-age period piece set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. The story is not just about the central character Dorothea, played with uncanny appeal by the incomparable Annette Bening, but also about a small circle of women who are a part of Dorothea’s life at this confusing, transitional moment in American history. The confusion is mainly over gender roles and love-expectations but it applies to the much larger question of life itself and how it should be, could be, or might be lived.
We find Dorothea facing her beloved Ford Galaxy as it decides to combust spontaneously into flames – a searing metaphor for the decade that brought us disco and punk rock, Watergate and impeachment, oil shortages and shag haircuts. Her son, Jamie, played with dark-eyed good looks by Lucas Jade Zumann, is a sensitive kid who, like his mother, is struggling to find his way in a confusing world. He and his mother dance a pas de deux around each other with many missteps. It’s not a pretty picture; but it’s full of real moments and nuggets of wisdom. When Jamie, an avid skate boarder, decides to play a stupid, dangerous game and almost dies, the audience is pulled into his mother’s world in a way that seals our interest in this little family. They inhabit one of those large ramshackle houses that were laying around everywhere in 1979 just waiting to be scooped up and renovated in the next decade by armies of young urban professionals, the loathed “yuppies” of the 1980s. This house, full of badly painted cabinets and chipping mill work, is the mise en scène for an ensemble of quirky yet believable characters – think Armisted Maupin or The Royal Tennenbaums. Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig, lives in the house; she’s that art school punk rocker we all fell in love with in the 70s and 80s. Another border in the big house is an ex-hippie named William, played with craggy sex appeal by Bill Crudup. He’s always trying to fix things – “that’s what men do”, Dorothea says to her teenage son, “but they just need to be there, which seems so hard for them.” Then there’s Julie, played by Elle Fanning – she’s Jamie’s childhood friend, who sneaks into his bedroom window at night to talk things out with him but she doesn’t allow him to have sex with her – “it would change things” she says ever so correctly. But childhood is giving way to adulthood and hormones are raging – in fact everybody’s hormones are busy at work leading them to dates, to bed, and to more missteps as each character tries to sort out love and attachment in a world full of miscues, wrong choices, and “inappropriate men”.
The central question – Can you raise a boy to be a man without a father? – is answered by Dorothea with an unequivocal “yes” as she enlists Julie and Abbie to help her connect with her wan, sulky son. This leads to more comic situations which the director, Mike Mills, milks for all they’re worth, as the film quotes the feminist literature of the day in a flood of nostalgia for an era before computer screens stole our minds, when people made cassette tapes of their favorite bands for their best friends, earnestly read philosophical books, struggling to think about life in new ways by asking the ever disruptive question: Why? The film is an homage to that era – before Reagan arrived and everything changed – when President Carter lectured the country about spiritual values, the loss of collective purpose, and warned against the dead-end of runaway materialism. How times have changed! Change is one of the key themes of this very interesting and deeply moving film, which reaches back in snippets to the 1920s when Dorothea was born into the Jazz Age, and keeps us listening to Louis Armstrong and the old song book of her era, while it mixes that soundtrack with the new wave sound of the “Art Fags” who dance in crazy movements and jerky steps to the fast tunes of the Ramones and the Talking Heads.
It would have been clear to anyone who had attended the March for Women’s Rights in Boston recently that these fabulous 20th century women raised a lot of terrific 20th century boys who grew up to be 21st century men, and who, somehow, know the difference between standing up to a bully and being one. Funny how a generation of art fags learned how to become real men while the Mad Men generation of the 1950s, recycled in the brassy, tabloid, “Bonfire of the Vanities” 1980s, seemed to have come back from the dead and marched like zombies straight into the highest echelons of power! What’s happening now in 21st Century America has made this movie about 20th Century women not only more interesting but also more relevant than ever. See it you’ll wonder how the life of our country should, could, and might still be, different – and better – than it is.