Since the march toward the holidays has begun to pick up speed, it’s nice to settle in for a movie night at home. Although some of the big, blockbuster action films have been attracting lots of big, blockbuster publicity, I opted to bypass the superheroes this week for something much quieter and streaming on Amazon: “20th Century Women.”
This film stars the talented Annette Bening as Dorothea Fields, a single mother trying to raise her teenaged son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). She was forty when he was born, and she’s a woman of independent means, but that’s just part of her story.
In spite of one Academy Award nomination, “20th Century Women” failed to have a wide release when it came out last January. I think I know why; therefore, I start this review with a recommendation disclaimer: this film is a must-see for women of a certain age (and not so much for anybody else).
If you’re female and old enough to remember Ike in the White House and life before the Internet; if you’re relatively sure that you’re invisible to most males under fifty; or if, try as you might, you’re always just a little behind the latest trend, then you’ll love this movie. Settle in with your blanket, favorite cat, and a cup of coco. Things move a lot more slowly than a band of superheroes.
That one Academy Award nomination was for “Best Original Screenplay.” Mike Mills, who wrote the screenplay and directed the film, has a background as a television writer. As a screenwriter, Mills takes lots of narrative liberties. He focuses on one character at a time, revealing distinctive points of view and exploring psychological nuances. Some issues create circumstances that explain their most complicated behaviors and motivations. Mills masterfully lays out the details and then leaves it up to the audience to interpret how it all adds up.
Voice-overs, condensed time sequences, and all manner of unusual camera shots offer subtle, but always revealing, details. The year is 1979, and Dorothea Fields and her son Jamie live in a big Victorian house with two roommates: handy man William (Billy Crudup) and young photographer and artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) completes the ensemble, bringing her own brand of complicated into the mix. As the “20th Century Women” of the title, Dorothea, Abbie, and Julie span three generations, each uniquely shaped by time and place, all sharing and negotiating who they are and will become.
How these people interact, what they need from each other, and how they navigate the world – all these things contribute to the narrative. Conflicts, just as they happen in life, eventually become manageable. Things change. Others stay the same. This is a tale gently told, unfolding through the processes of time and, in no small measure, love.
Rated R for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use.
Marilyn Robitaille has been writing film reviews since 1999.