20th Century Women

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**** (out of five)

There have been countless coming-of-age comedy/dramas about significant years in young men’s lives: the year they got laid, the year their father died, the year they lost their innocence. But never have I seen a film about the year a fifteen year-old became a feminist. Mike Mills’ autobiographical 20th Century Women is just that, and it is wonderful.

It’s interesting to review 20th Century Women in the wake of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come, which is also an autobiographical portrait of the filmmaker’s mother. While a young woman – obviously Hansen-Løve’s surrogate – only briefly appears in Things To Come, having very little impact on the story, in 20th Century Women the protagonist is obviously the “Mike Mills” character, 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). So in Things To Come, Hansen-Løve shows you her mother; in 20th Century Women, Mills shows you his mother’s effect on him.

But not just hers – most definitely not! Mills grew up surrounded by women, and the fictionalised account he offers here makes them three: his / Jamie’s mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his best friend, 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), and lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dad’s nowhere to be seen, but there’s another lodger, William (Billy Crudup), supplying at least a version of mature(ish!) masculinity. (Incidentally, Mills’ last film Beginners (2010) was based on his father, who came out as a gay man in his mid-70s).

It’s 1979 in Santa Barbara and Dorothea, a graphic artist, runs her large, rambling, constantly-under-renovation house like a very laid-back boarding house. Her boarders William and Abbie are both, essentially, escaping their lives while trying to figure out new ones, while Julie escapes nightly from her own home into Jaime’s bedroom to sleep with him platonically, which is more than a little confusing to his roiling hormones. Sensing the changes exploding within him, his mother enlists the aid of Abbie and Julie in his emotional education, but Abbie’s determined feminism and Julie’s own confusing pubescence aren’t necessarily the life lessons Dorothea is hoping to offer. As a fifty-five year old professional woman with a slightly bohemian lifestyle, Dorothea is a little too late for the revolution, but also an embodiment of its basic ideals.

The film is punctuated with quotes from the feminist texts Jaime reads throughout the year along with clips from the punk bands he is listening to (both thanks to Abbie). This juxtaposition is original and thrilling. What an intense experience, to be listening to The Raincoats while reading Our Bodies, Ourselves while surrounded by three generations of women all trying to figure it out for themselves! Mills makes it personal, touching and true. It all smells very real, very honest, very heartfelt.

It’s also really funny. I laughed out loud – a lot – at some of the best lines this year. The humour flows organically, from the situation and from the truth of the characters. Nothing feels forced. No emotions are coerced. Everything feels genuine, artistic, pure.

And the performances are fantastic. Much has already been said about Bening’s excellent, multi-faceted portrayal (the film came out in the United States months ago) but Gerwig and Fanning both give career-bests. Zumann is always believable and crafty with a sly zinger, and Crudup’s performance is – here’s that horrible critic’s word – revelatory. Humble, odd, gentle, yet disarmingly sexual, William is an enigmatic, extremely rich character, completely realised. It’s a houseful ensemble of excellence, in a thoroughly entertaining, sophisticated, beautifully crafted film. Highly, highly recommended.

Maggie’s Plan



How do you solve a problem like Greta Gerwig? In almost every film she’s in, she begins by derailing your artistic sensibilities by drawing attention to the artifice of the activity you’re engaged in: you’re watching a movie, and she is an actress, standing in front of a camera, speaking lines that someone has written for the movie you’re watching. The dialogue sounds like dialogue, not like real life.

Then you realize that, while the actors around her may not seem as constructed as Miss Gerwig, they’re not as funny, either. She may seem like a vehicle of the writer, but she also seems like the perfect vehicle of the writer. She is hitting every beat, getting every intended joke, inflection, intended line reading. She is the writer’s advocate.

Finally, by the end, you’ve fallen in love with her all over again. This is Gerwig’s crazy, strange, unique skill: she challenges you to like her at the beginning of each film she’s in, and by the end you would do anything for her. She seduces you in every role, over and over, and she always wins.

It’s lucky writer / director Rebecca Miller got Gerwig to centrally ground her film Maggie’s Plan, then, because without her it would lie charmless and flat. As a script – and, especially, as a piece of direction – it’s a copy of a copy of a copy of Woody Allen – a fourth generation Xerox. Extremely erudite, educated, very white New Yorkers navigate love while talking about each others’ writing. Ethan Hawke is the man; Julianne Moore is the other woman. “Maggie’s Plan” is the hinge the plot swings on, and, while slender, it has enough bolts to warrant not revealing it. (The trailer is not so respectful – avoid it if you don’t want most elements of Maggie’s plan revealed).

This is a movie of quiet smiles and the occasional laugh; it’s barely a comedy, and yet it’s only a comedy; the stakes, while genuine for the characters, are superficial for the audience, and hardly worthy of the lofty title of drama. Gerwig saves the day, the movie, and justifies your visit to the cinema. She works in a rarefied world of highly literate, literary, urban, independent cinema. Hollywood probably doesn’t want her and she probably doesn’t want Hollywood. Thank goodness. It means she makes movies like Maggie’s Plan, which is otherwise unremarkable, watchable. I guess there is no problem like Great Gerwig, or if there is, she solves it herself, one erudite, literate movie at a time.

Mistress America

banner-mistress-america-film_2**** (out of five)

The second screenplay collaboration between Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, Mistress America is gleefully, self-knowingly stuffed with spectacularly funny dialogue, the kind of rapid-fire zingers they used to give to Tracy and Hepburn or Hope and Crosby. It sounds very written, especially coming out of Gerwig’s mouth; she hits every consonant, syllable and punctuation point, as if proud of her own words, which she should be.

Gerwig is Hope or Hepburn to Lola Kirke’s Crosby or Tracy; Kirke plays a Tracy, an NYU Freshman feeling lonely and disconnected, who is inspired to write a short story by her soon-to-be sister (by marriage) Brooke (Gerwig). They immediately develop a May / August bramance, and Tracy inspires Brooke to follow her dreams, with mixed results.

This is really witty stuff, the funniest film Baumbach has made (while not necessarily being his best, which is probably The Squid and The Whale; we also have to remember that he co-wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, both of which are really, really funny). Gerwig is luminescent even in her artificiality while Kirke is movingly real; rather than being a distraction, their differing styles complement each other beautifully. You’ll be hard pressed to remember details of this film in a couple of months – it’s a light, breezy, quick trip to the fountain – but it’s joyful as hell, and as funny.