"20th Century Women" | OUTVisions for LGBT Professionals

"20th Century Women"

an idealistic, punk, feel good kind of movie

"20th Century Women"
Bryen Dunn

20th Century Women is one of those feel-good movies that’s much needed, especially during times of uncertainty and unrest that’s happening around the world. Movies are meant to be a distraction, a way of letting go of the daily stress of life.

honest account of cultural change

Filmmaker Mike Mills delivers an honest account of five individuals with intertwined lives, yet each one is developing and navigating separately on their own accord as well. Set in Santa Barbara during the summer of 1979, the film follows Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) on her own, during a time that’s brimming with cultural change and rebellion.

As any single mother can attest to, raising a child on one’s own can be somewhat daunting, and a bit of a struggle, sometimes more so with a son. There’s no mention of the father, and the only real male figure in Jamie’s life is William (Billy Crudup), who plays the handyman, for lack of a better description. Then there’s Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited late twenties punk, feminist artist living as a boarder with Dorthea and Jamie, and Julie (Elle Fanning), the rebellious teenage neighbour and bestie to Jamie.

I couldn’t help but make comparisons throughout the movie. First there’s “Grandma”, another strong character driven movie released last year that starred Lily Tomlin. Bening’s character is quite similar to the role Tomlin played, the middle-age women who portrays the hippest, most calm, cool, and collected individual. Also, newcomer Zumann seems quite similar to Michael Cera’s character of Paulie Bleeker in Juno. Zumann’s mannerisms and subtle nuances are naturally played out, whether it be with his sexual explorations, rebellious outbursts, or his general teenage will to expand his knowledge and understanding.

While naturally Jamie has conflicts with the voice of a reasoning parent, he often connects on a different level with both Abbie and Julie. The more mature Abbie introduces him to the alternative music scenes that incorporate both the punk and “art-fag” new wave sounds of the time. She also presents him with a barrage of feminist books and ideologies that she firmly believes in. With Julie being closer in age, Jamie wants more than a friendship with her, but she firmly shuts him down by stating, “friends can’t have sex and still be friends.”

The story continues around these very basic premises, and again this is a feel-good, follow-along type story without any big Hollywood special effects. Politics are also brought up, as it is during the times of the Carter and Reagan eras, and as mentioned earlier, a time of political discourse that stems from the counter-culture movement of punk music. There’s narrative dialogue throughout that gives viewers a glimpse into the future of where the characters are headed, yet we remain in 1979 throughout the film.

punk rock soundtrack

Another thing I enjoyed immensely about this film is the music references. In fact, the music is as much a part of the story line as the dialogue. By 1979, the punk rock subculture which some defined as much a state of mind as an anarchic, hugely expressive mode of music, fashion, literature and art, had emerged from the underground and was finally hitting the U.S. suburbs. Just as the world seemed to be creaking on the cusp of shattering changes, popular music was undergoing its first real revolt since the advent of rock n’ roll.

For Mike Mills, who grew up in sleepy Santa Barbara, the discovery of punk was both a revelation and an electric emotional conduit. “For me the energy of punk was something euphoric,” he recalls. “It felt like running towards freedom with your eyes closed. I remember almost overnight going from Elton John to The Clash. The culture hadn’t really offered a lot of emotional bandwidth until I discovered this music. I wanted some of that energy, that verve, to be at the core of the film.” Mills sums up: “Music is a character in 20th Century Women, and there are many different kinds of music in the film, but to me it is in essence a punk movie, both in the way it moves and in its human contradictions.”

Mills is also known for his music video work for artists such as Air, Moby, Blonde Redhead, Yoko Ono and Pulp. As a graphic artist, Mike has designed album covers for Sonic Youth’s “Washing Machine,” Beastie Boy’s “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two,” Wild Flag, and Air’s “Moon Safari.” It appears Mills has found his perfect niche – a story of music and coming of age.

20th Century Women opens in wide release in theatres across Canada this month.

Jan 13th - Toronto

Jan 20th - Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Halifax, Ottawa

Watch the trailer here.

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AuthorBryen Dunn

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