Film Review: 20th Century Women (2016)

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This is a film about friendship, punk music, sex, family, the stock market, and feminism. A heady brew, and an all-encompassing, ambitious title to go along with it, but the film is more restrained than all of these elements might suggest.

It takes place in California in the late 70s (at the end of the punk boom) and follows a 15 year old boy, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who has grown up surrounded by strong, flawed 20th century women.

His mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), is an intellectually curious single mother who can’t seem to pin down a lasting relationship, but is as interested in people’s inner lives as this film wants to be. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a lodger with striking red hair inspired by Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and she will attempt to initiate Dorothea and Jamie into her beloved punk scene and feminist tomes. Julie (Elle Fanning) is a friend of the family and an emotionally damaged, confused youth who has somehow got it into her head that sex and love are incompatible, which is unfortunate for Jamie because he has fallen both in love and lust with her.

Another hanger-on is William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who will try to sleep with two of the above women for reasons he isn’t quite cognisant of himself. When Dorothea realises that this ‘masculine’ figure isn’t exactly the ideal role model for Jamie, she enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to guide the kid through the turbulence of adolescence.

Amusingly, they will instead seek to use him as a wall to bounce their own problems against, leaving the poor boy bruised and more sexually frustrated than ever.

The key to enjoyment of this film is in the performances, and director Mike Mills is wise to mostly stay aloof, even if the auteur in him can’t quite resist some zippy flash-forwards and backwards in time. Mills does much better with Elle Fanning than Nicolas Winding Refn, a truly awful actor’s director, ever managed in The Neon Demon, and she emerges as an exciting talent to watch. Greta Gerwig manages to imply deep emotional wounds without ever wallowing in them, and is equally impressive. The alarmingly young-looking Lucas Jade Zumann really makes you feel for a sweet kid who spends more time worrying about women’s orgasms than his own. And of course the great Annette Bening is dynamite as ever, bringing the comedy whenever the film needs it, most particularly in her midlife-crisis attempts to understand the contemporary punk scene. A highlight sees her and Crudup fumblingly attempting to dance to Black Flag. Priceless.

What disappoints me about the film is that it uses punk largely as a metaphor for societal change – I get no sense of any real passion for the music itself, despite a top-notch soundtrack (Clash! Raincoats! Buzzcocks! Benny Goodman?). Scenes in local clubs with long-haired hooligans thrashing out on their out-of-tune instruments don’t seem to get Mike Mills excited in the way they should, and he has a habit of cutting these short before they have divulged any of the genre’s secret powers. We are lectured on how ‘important’ punk is by a well-meaning Abbie, but we never feel it in the membranes of the film, and feeling is so much more important to both music and cinema.

Nevertheless, it’s pleasurable indeed when dealing specifically with its characters and not with half-baked ideas about music or 20th century politics. It aims for some of the disquiet of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, a film that showed us how 70s politics might have impacted upon familial and sexual relations. But Mills doesn’t have the same deft poetic touch that Lee managed to bring to his portrait of the era.

20th Century Women is not a great film, but it’s a diverting, intriguing two hours, and one that nobly aims to show us how a bunch of likeable female characters might seek to interact with a new generation of, you’re damn right, male feminists.

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