20th Cen­tury Women

20TH CEN­TURY WOMEN, drama, rated R; Vi­o­let Crown, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts; 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

Writer-di­rec­tor Mark Mills is work­ing his way through his fam­ily. He paid trib­ute to his fa­ther in the wry and lov­ing Begin­ners (2010), which chron­i­cled that par­ent’s com­ing out late in life as gay, and won a late-in-life Os­car for Christo­pher Plum­mer.

Now it’s his mother’s turn, and this af­fec­tion­ate, funny, and kalei­do­scopic por­trait could set An­nette Ben­ing up to con­tend for the same prize. The film takes place pri­mar­ily in 1979, when Mills was a Cal­i­for­nia teenager, and ex­plores the rais­ing of fif­teenyear-old Jamie (Lu­cas Jade Zu­mann) by his sin­gle mother Dorothea (Ben­ing), with in­put from a cou­ple of younger women: Ab­bie (Greta Ger­wig), the punk scar­let-haired twenty-some­thing pho­tog­ra­pher who boards in their ram­bling Santa Bar­bara house, and Julie (Elle Fan­ning), sev­en­teen, Jamie’s best friend since child­hood, who likes to climb in his win­dow to crawl into bed with him — but with no fool­ing around. When he tries to slide a hand up un­der her skirt as they sprawl to­gether on his bed, she pushes it away. “It was eas­ier when you were younger,” she re­marks. “Be­fore you got horny.”

This is a com­ing-of-age story in which all the char­ac­ters, what­ever their ages, seem to be com­ing to grips with them­selves and ex­plor­ing who they are. “Age,” Jamie de­clares, “is a bour­geois con­struct.” Mills uses flash­backs to es­tab­lish a con­text for his char­ac­ters, as well as reach­ing for­ward to ac­knowl­edge a world that they can’t yet imag­ine, a world of in­ter­net and dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, and a time when we know the fates and fu­tures of the house­hold mem­bers. This in­ter­min­gling of past, present, and fu­ture cre­ates a funny, bit­ter­sweet, and know­ing aura of nos­tal­gia.

Dorothea smokes like a chim­ney, an­other nod to an ear­lier time. When Jamie calls her on the cig­a­rettes, she ex­cuses the habit by say­ing, “When I started they weren’t bad for you, they were just stylish.” Dorothea was born in 1925 and raised in the De­pres­sion, a pe­riod which Mills evokes with news­reel footage, and her cul­tural world was formed by Louis Arm­strong and Glenn Miller, and Bog­art movies with a cig­a­rette dan­gling from ev­ery lip. She didn’t have Jamie un­til she was forty, so she finds her­self grop­ing her way through the com­plex­i­ties of rais­ing a male child in a punk-rock cul­ture she doesn’t un­der­stand.

“Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” Julie asks when Dorothea so­lic­its her help with her son. “I don’t think so,” Dorothea replies. There is one man in this hap­haz­ard pic­ture, an ex-hip­pie named Wil­liam (Billy Crudup) who fixes things around the house, and pro­vides what lit­tle adult male in­flu­ence Jamie gets in his life. Wil­liam’s pres­ence adds to the irony of Dorothea’s ob­ser­va­tion that “men al­ways feel like they have to fix things for women,” when, she says, re­ally all they have to do is be there.

Be­ing there is some­thing Jamie’s fa­ther has not man­aged to do. So Jamie is raised by women, and the adult Mark Mills, look­ing back on the hu­man com­edy that was his ado­les­cence, con­cludes that for all the mis­steps and em­bar­rass­ments and trial-and-er­ror, the ed­u­ca­tion was es­sen­tially a pretty good one. It gave him a deep re­spect for women, and put him in touch with his fem­i­nine side. This is a per­spec­tive that can oc­ca­sion­ally get Jamie in trou­ble with his peers, as when he tries to lec­ture an­other boy on how to sex­u­ally sat­isfy a woman and gets a bloody nose for his trou­ble. Jamie reads fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture, but he also gets tips from Julie on how to walk and talk like a man.

Mu­sic, as it al­ways does in a cul­ture, pro­vides a touch­stone for dis­tin­guish­ing past from present. There’s a lot of punk and post-punk (a dis­tinc­tion that may be lost on the older au­di­ence for this movie). Lis­ten­ing to Jamie’s record player blar­ing the Rain­coats, Dorothea says, “They know they’re ter­ri­ble, right?” And Jamie ex­plains that part of the point is to have “pas­sion that’s greater than the tools you have to deal with it.”

Mills has the tools to deal with this lovely, of­ten hi­lar­i­ous thank-you let­ter to the women who raised him, es­pe­cially his mother. The won­der­ful Ben­ing can sep­a­rate a sin­gle ex­pres­sion into mul­ti­ple chap­ters. She is flat-out su­perb, and the oth­ers don’t trail far be­hind. Fan­ning is lu­mi­nous as a teen ex­plor­ing her sex­u­al­ity but re­tain­ing a ra­di­ant in­no­cence, and Ger­wig finds new lev­els of tal­ent as the bruised but not bro­ken young woman with plenty of prob­lems but a zest for life. And Crudup brings a gen­tle lost sweet­ness to his role as the man of the house.

— Jonathan Richards

What women want: An­nette Ben­ing and Lu­cas Jade Zu­mann

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