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20th Century Women

2017-05-12 07:31
 

What it's about:

The year is 1979, and the major political and social upheavals of the time provoke a single mother into turning to others for help with seeing her teenage son through to manhood. With no real male role models on hand, she settles on her bohemian, free-spirited female tenant and her son's precocious female best friend.

What we thought:

Anchored by a brilliant performance by Annette Bening, 20th Century Women is, as you may have guessed is a film that takes a long hard look at femininity and feminism towards the end of the great women's movement of the 1960s and '70s but what intrigues most about it is the way that it does so by asking – of all things - what it is that makes a man, a man (“is it brain or brawn or what month he was born?”, as the Who asked fifty years ago). 

It's an extremely smart bit of writing from Mike Mills (the decidedly un-prolific indie darling behind Thumbsucker and Beginners) that constantly undercuts any and all expectations of what we might expect of buzz words like “feminism” or “masculinity.” More than that, it also uses its very particular time period to look at a generational and mother-child gap that pits the sunny optimism of the hippy era against the angry uncertainty of punk and how even an “enlightened”, liberal woman who came of age through the political and social upheaval of the 1960s might not be prepared for a new kind of “revolution” - though, of course, in hindsight the differences between punk rock and the '60s counter-culture were far less significant than their similarities and, ultimately, their failures. 

It's also no less impressive that the film deals with these ideas as part and parcel of a simple and quietly human story in a way that allows the themes to blossom organically out of the narrative, rather than feeling like they're either crowbarred into the storytelling or, worse, just use the story around them to provide a platform for what is ultimately just an illustrated lecture. It's anything but coldly academic and its complexities ensure that it's never preachy, let alone sanctimonious.

The performances too are uniformly impressive with Lucas Jade Zumman being a particular standout as the male presence around which these 20th century women rotate. Admittedly, there is the over familiarity of having Greta Gerwig once again playing the same quirky hipster type that she plays in nearly every movie she's in but the complexity of the material allows even her to stretch her wings somewhat. 

Here's the problem though: for all that the film is well directed, well written and well acted and for all that it's impossible not to admire it for both the complexity of its ideas and the ways in which it handles them, I would be lying if I said that I found it a particularly easy film to embrace. It does admittedly have some of the stink of smugness and self-aware quirkiness that the worst indie films often suffer from but it's far from the worst offender I've come across in recent years (*cough*Greenberg*cough*).

The problem, I think comes from the characters themselves, who may be complexly drawn and, as I said, very well portrayed by the film's top notch cast but they are without fail – and I can't think of any way to put this – kind of annoying. Not utterly hateful or impossible to believe in but just, just on the wrong side of... smartly but artificially constructed. The performances aren't mannered but there's something about the characters they're playing that are. Again, this is hardly the most egregious example of this in the often tooth-grinding (though just as often wonderful) world of indie filmmaking but it's just there enough to stop me from ever really caring about or feeling invested in these characters.

Avoid it like the proverbial, then, if you can relate to (and no doubt better express) the annoyances of such “indie-spirited” particularities but if you can look past this or have no earthly idea just what the hell I'm on about, then do give it a shot. It's clearly not for everyone (despite what it's very high Metacritic score might suggest) but there is more than enough that's demonstrably great about it that even if you don't love it, as so many clearly do, it's unlikely that you won't at least find what to admire about it. 

And that's certainly not something I can say about certain other films being released this week.

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