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« Introducing the Panel for "Smackdown '01" | Main | FYC: Underrated Players on Emmy-Noticed Series »
Tuesday
Jun182019

The New Classics - 20th Century Women

Michael Cusumano here to thank you for making this post part of your own personal Mike Mills film today. I'm honored.

image via "books in movies"

To watch a Mike Mills movie is to continually ask, “Why don’t more people make movies with this much freedom?” 

His films deploy everything from news clips to rotating narrators to archival footage from a century ago. The screenplay will jump backwards in time, skimming through the characters’ biographies, or forwards to glimpse the details of their death. The focus can zoom in to the most granular details or out to encompass the entire cosmos. I doubt he will ever make a film that doesn’t include a shot of the stars. At least I hope he doesn’t... 

His films don’t march in a straight line in the standard fashion. They circle the moment, letting it breathe and unfold at its own pace, moving on only after hitting on a moment of truth. It’s an endlessly compelling way to move through a story.

In 2016’s magnificent 20th Century Women, one of Mill’s most effective tricks is to delve into whatever literature the characters are reading. Not just a shot of the covers but big chunks of the text, read in voiceover by the characters. "Forever" by Judy Blume, "The Road Less Traveled" by M. Scott Peck, and in perhaps the most memorable moment in a film full of memorable moments, the essay “It Hurts to Be Alive and Obsolete: The Aging Woman” by Zoe Moss:

 

…Don’t pretend for a minute, as you look at me that I’m not as alive as you are, and I do not suffer from the category of which you are forcing me… 

Fourteen-year-old Jamie (Lucas James Zumann) received this and a pile of other feminist literature from Greta Gerwig’s Abbie after she was instructed by Annette Bening’s Dorothea to take an active part in the raising of her son. Now Jamie sits on her bed reading it to her and she looks truly uncomfortable with what she has unleashed. 

Earlier in the film Dorothea encourages her son to be present for Abbie as she deals with the fallout from her cervical cancer, an attempt to teach him a version of the “attention = love” lesson from Gerwig’s own Lady Bird. As he directs that same attention back at his mother we in the audience are primed to believe, as Jamie clearly does, that the reading will be greeted as an insightful description of her. The film implies as much by pairing the essay with a montage of her middle-aged existence. So we are as caught off guard when Jamie is met not with a pat on the head for being a good little feminist, but with hostility instead. 

The screenplay says that Dorothea becomes angry, but Bening makes the wonderful choice to play it all with an indulgent smile. “You think you  know me better cause you read that?” she challenges. He retreats. “I don’t need to read a book to know about me.” she fires at him before Jamie flees the scene altogether.

Bening’s reaction is fascinating in its complexity. On one level she is offended by her son’s presumptuousness. Jamie is seized by the excitement of grasping difficult adult concepts for the first time, but youthful enthusiasm doesn’t excuse the glib assumption that he has his mom figured out after one night with an anthology of feminist essays. While the writing surely has some sting of recognition, we’ve already seen that Dorothea is too multifaceted to be so easily encapsulated. 

And yet, while her son’s behavior rankles, Dorothea’s reaction isn’t entirely pure either. By this point in the film her attempts to relate to the youth of 1979 have left her feeling alienated both from her boy and the culture. Now she finds her son sitting on the edge of her bed holding a copy of “The Politics of Orgasm”.  No surprise that she reacts defensively. 

On yet another level, the scene could be read as a Mills writing a rebuke of his own film, a reminder directed at his own on-screen stand-in that as lovingly rendered as Dorothea may be, she is still Mills’ version of his parent, filtered through his memories.

That Bening captures all this and a dozen more layers in a few seconds of listening is miraculous screen acting.

"The New Classics"
a series reflecting on great scenes, films, and performances of the 21st century 

 

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Reader Comments (11)

This is such a cosy warm blanket movie.

June 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

A (very) close second to Moonlight as my favorite film of 2016. Just sublime, all-around, a real valentine to Santa Barbara (which, incidentally, is my home town).

June 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

This has now usurped all previous takers for "movie that was most ill-served by a December glut bow". Such a masterwork, I think. And you're right that Mike Mills style is a wonderful personal thing.

I guess though that hoping for someone iidiosyncrattic to be influential would make them less special.

another great piece Michael and yet another reminder that its a matter of cultural insanity that Annette Bening still doesn't have an Oscar and didn't even get nominated for this one despite running circles around some of the nominees.

June 18, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Yes yes yes !! and Amen - a love letter to life - love - woman and the warm fuzzy feeling of pure joy ... I made a promise to myself to rewatch this movie once a year to remind myself how much I adore intelligent movie making in a time where our best stars get chewed up and spit out by a Marvel Universe - from now on Micheal your list will be my rewatch road to Mecca ;-)

June 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMartin

I highly recommend everyone who liked this great movie to go watch Mill's short flm with The National, starring Alicia Vikander. It's on Youtube and it's beautiful.

June 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

I watched this movie on plane and was so moved by it. By its intelligence, its voice, the way it said,showed and layered its elements and ideas. I saw it again with my husband. He thought it was ok and character arcs of protagonists reduced/lessened the relationship with other characters. I buy where he is coming from. But it still is a hell of a movie.

June 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterKD

I love this movie. Perhaps my favorite moment is when Greta Gerwig as Abbie gives one of the best, most succinct definitions of the untrained artist aesthetic that I've ever heard. Here's her describing the post-punk group The Raincoats to Annette Bening's character: "It's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw."

Just beautiful.

June 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

It's a bad snub, but Bening has only suffered one, and it's controversial, but she was probably second all of her nominations.

June 19, 2019 | Unregistered Commentergina

Love this film, and I'm mystified that "Boyhood" was received with rapturous reviews, awards, and a greater audience share than "20th Century Woman". It was still about a boy growing up, but was also about a mother.
I guess it's all in the title.
And it helps to have an early start at Telluride and Toronto to build buzz.
I own a copy of this film and when I re-watch it I marvel at the performances, especially Annette Benning, and the innovative direction of Mike Mills. Definitely a "New Classic".

June 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

I don't remember being that impressed with "Beginners" when it came out (though I should definitely watch it again), but I was truly blown away by the utter brilliance of "20th century women". It's very funny because I don't have a very precise memory in mind or a scene that I could quote, but I remember leaving the movie theater and feeling so happy and content. I asked/begged the people I love the most to go see it (and they did) so that we could share how amazing it was.
Annette Bening's performance (and the rest of the cast, really) is out of this world.

June 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFrenchToast

Nat - I am no expert but to me this movie practically screams "OCTOBER RELEASE". When the most common adjective people use in conjunction with your film is "cozy" you should know that it's not going to shout to be heard over the glut in late December. The only explanation I can imagine for that release strategy is the studio thinking "Man, we've got the goods with this one." but obviously quality isn't everything. As you often say, some films need time to sink in. Would Moonlight have done as well released the week before Christmas?

Martin - I had already forgotten that Bening was a Marvel blockbuster just a few months ago until I read your comment

Lucky - Seconded

June 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

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