Friday, January 20

REVIEW: 20th Century Women

Directed by Mike Mills
2016 Drama
1 hour 59 minutes
From A24 and Annapurna

Annette Bening
Elle Fanning
Greta Gerwig
Billy Crudup
Lucas Jade Zumann

Since we're currently roaming through the 1970s in this blog, it seems particularly fitting to be reviewing a film that
illuminates that decade.  It focuses on the lives of five people residing in a Santa Barbara fixer-upper and as it seems so many were during that decade, they're all trying to make sense of their lives.

The title is a little misleading because it was more about a teenage boy, his free-spirited mother, two female boarders and one handyman-boarder.  Personally, I like Five Characters in Search of a Life.  It feels a little like a cheat to attempt to persuade 
audiences it's about women when it's not only about five people and in numerous aspects, frankly, more about the kid. 

I saw it because of the countless previews that told me it was a coming-of-age story, which I dearly love, where a teenage boy in a fatherless household is basically influenced by the lives of the three
women he lives with.  That was how it was for me, as well, but much earlier in my life.  I knew there would be some identity here for me, combined with the fact that I, too, lived in Southern California during the 70s.  And at that level, I enjoyed the film.

Another reason for seeing it was Annette Bening, an actress I very much enjoy and whom I can usually count on to make movies I like.  She and the boy (Zumann) are the best things about the film, as well. Throughout I found myself  wondering why she chose to look so frumpy.

I also wanted to see it because of writer-director Mills whose first film, Beginners (2010), the Ewan McGregor-Christopher Plummer film about an elderly widower's coming out, which I very much admired.  I thought lightning might strike again but for me, at least, it didn't quite do that.  And the problem is the writing.

Mother and son actually have a pretty good relationship, beyond
each being a little mystified by the other, but seem to be able to keep the lines of communication up and running.  The twist here is that the mother sees that her son is on the cusp of manhood and things are changing for him.  There probably would have been no alarm at all had there been a father in the house but for some reason not only does she suddenly feel incapable of following her own good sense, but she corrals her two female boarders to help him out and by extension, help her out.  Why? It's not so much about sexual instruction than it is about teaching him about women in general. Again, Mom couldn't have done that?

I recall there was some mention of the male boarder stepping up but for some reason that never happened.  I found that odd since
he was pretty much the most level-headed, not counting the kid himself.  As it turned out, the boarder was used mainly for a little romance.

One of the female boarders was a painter going through a serious crisis, which may look like it has to do with the fact that she cannot conceive a child, but in actuality has more to do with her drug use and messed-up background.  The other is the boy's girlfriend who was not particularly well-defined or interesting.

I think one of the things Mills should seriously consider getting over is the excessive use of voice-over narration in his future writing endeavors. Stop telling us about the characters and perhaps try showing it.  I find telling to be a little disrespectful to audiences, as if we're lamebrains who couldn't figure it out for ourselves, besides robbing us of surprise.

Furthermore there seemed to be a breathlessness in telling us all he could about his five characters and then, as if he ran out of time, he simply did more voice-over to inform what eventually happened to them.  Not my cup of tea.

I give a big attagirl to Bening for her usual multi-layered and very suggestible performance. Again, it's a shame Mills thought he had to explain her to us. Bening is a pro who knows exactly how to convey what she wants.  I hope Zumann has a career in front of him.  He was energetic, bright-eyed and attractive and certainly had a lot of words to memorize.  Crudup was enjoyable and was able to provide some of the lighter moments.  I can't say as I enjoyed either of the other two actresses or characters.  Both were kind of depressed and depressing.

By no means is the film not worth seeing although a screening at home would suffice. It has some meaningful things to say about the mother and son relationship in particular and the times in general.  I was rather surprised to find myself the only one in the theater at my 11:15 a.m. showing.

Next posting:
Boy Singers with Brief Movie Careers

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