Friday, January 20, 2017

Brief thoughts on 20th Century Women.

2016 has seen a great deal of movies concerning the personal impression that people leave on younger generations, from Moonlight's deconstruction of stereotyping coming to define someone, to Kubo and the Two Strings doing the same with memories of the past. But in no film has that idea been hit nearly as well on the head as 20th Century Women, the latest from Beginners director Mike Mills, making his way back into the independent circuit with an autobiographical touch, and crafting one of 2016's most perfect yet fittingly imperfect films.

And when I say imperfect, that's not to deride or criticize the film in any way. In fact, it's those imperfections where the film gets much of its incredible soul. Mills feels less interested in shaping traditional story progressions than he is going full-on into character study. For much of the film, the central focus is in Annete Bening's Dorothea recruiting friends to help her son Jamie transition into manhood, spending time with him and analyzing his issues, as well as pass on important knowledge to him. But as time goes on, this fittingly becomes more of a background detail, centering the focus on the collective character flaws of the cast, as their time spent with Jamie feels like reverse therapy, using him as a surrogate to confront their own issues as much as they try to fix his. This set-up mainly exists to give Mills an opportunity to play with different character dynamics, observing the wildly varying chemistry shared between match-ups at any given time.

The film beautifully plays like a collection of moments, much like the photo montages that Greta Gerwig's Abbie pieces together to tell a personal story. But snapshots and descriptions can only do so much to make an observer feel that emotion, or allow them to truly understand a person, and I suppose that's the greatest point about the film. It's not about fully understanding these characters or their flaws and hang-ups, but instead looking over the actions of these characters without a judgmental or cynical eye, and seeing these perceived flaws as an expansion to personality, and all the more reason to love them. It all comes to leave a great impact on Jamie in shaping him, but to give him credit - as well as newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, that still doesn't make him a blank slate. He's still full of unique ideas and fully realized internal whiplash, and even as he absorbs new beliefs and causes as part of his identity, his angst and connection to those close figures in his life is always present and deeply felt, and even hit me on a personal note as I too felt that my most important connections came from the strong female figures in my life.

And what strong figures the ones in the film are. with Annete Bening headlining the film as a luminous, but deeply heartbreaking mother trying as best as she can to get to her son's core. Try as she might, she's still so caught up with her own fears to break free of her internal safeguards, hesitant to let anyone see her through to her own core, firmly rooting herself in the past rather than be willing to move on and make meaningful change. She also gets terrific support from the two other important ladies. Elle Fanning, having a banner year with 2016, is absolutely lovely as Jamie's closest high school friend, enjoying a platonic and tightly knit relationship of mutual respect and free-flowing conversation, often one to brag of her sexual endeavors, as well as exhibiting often profound ideals about love. But if I were to call anyone in this cast MVP, Greta Gerwig is practically a revelation in this movie. Admittedly I haven't been a fan of her (especially when she's writing her own scripts), but here she's found a natural home for her stream-of-consciousness musings and quirks, as well as showing layers upon layers of emotional weight. She's the closest Jamie has to a big sister, while also playing something of an alternate mother to him, as inexperienced and prone to mistakes as any new mother is. It truly says something about how great a cast is when Billy Crudup's William, the one prominent male figure in Jamie's life, a heartbroken yet carefree handyman, is the weakest of the cast... a cast, I should say, doesn't have a single weak link to be found.

Much like Mills' previous film Beginners, culture also plays a great part in 20th Century Women, and going along with the aforementioned power of moments throughout the film, has the delightful novelty of opening a time capsule and reliving a long gone past. But it's also a film about looking to the future, from the fears of mortality and ever-changing political moods, to the fazing out of in the moments fads, to looking past the bleakness to see the beauty and amazing progression of people and technology, to even learning how to let those people closest to you go. Even as they branch out to different paths, to the point they may lose touch, it's those memories and fond connections with those people that make for the most meaningful experiences, both positive and negative, shaping us and preparing us for much greater things to come.

It's a movie I am more than willing to adopt as part of my soul, and if it weren't for another certain movie already stealing my heart, I'd easily call it the year's best film.

***** / *****

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