20th Century Women (NYFF Review)

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20th Century Women is the story of three women from three different generations, their relationship to each other and a growing adolescent under a 1979 Santa Barbara matriarch after her son’s close call with death. There is a critical point halfway into Mike Mills’ exquisite 20th Century Women that stands out to me. Dorothy reveals her eminent demise, telling the reader she will eventually die from cancer at age 74. Losing a grip on the modern ever-changing world, Dorothy begins to feel how elusive the passage of time actually is. She does not understand this new and worldly punk era (which in 1979 is also coming to a close) and how sadness in life is inevitable. People change, eras come to end, new diseases take their course and unimaginable innovations rise. Right then, in hindsight, we realize this movie is not only an ode to the people who shaped our personalities and philosophies, but alsoabout the invincibility of youth and the enlightened human spirit. Characters are not thinking of consequences, but the learning and philosophies that guides them. Some are threatened, others are rotting away from the inside and out. We see so much of ourselves in our possessions; through hope and meaning in our art. This further envelops how vital it is to let go of the people we care about most, so they can experience the world for all its capable of. On to the film’s focal point, the movie opens with Dorothy’s car being on the fire. She couldn’t put her finger on how it burst into flames. “It wasn’t always old. It just got like that all of a sudden.” The movie is a boundless ode to the passage of time, and the movie ingeniously builds off this with its symbiotic opening.”

Structurally as a whole, 20th Century Women is a highly unique way of telling a coming of age story, as it does so from a feminist perspective. It sacrifices the old clichéd sole point-of-view of a child, and instead values its time from three different perspectives of the three great women who raised him. The three provide their earthly wisdom and worldly advice about life as he tries to fit in and discover life for himself, but the goal for Dorothy, the head of the matriarch is one of these great women, is not just for him to be a good man, but good at being a man. This is a living breathing humanistic composition about a family and culture evolving and how we as people are forever evolving, as well. Mills displays his trademark impressionistic narrational devices articulating a naked sadness of repetition and historical consciousness in relation to the ongoing narrative. Yet overall, Mills has crafted the kind of profound coming of age in which you laugh with recognition because the situations feel both natural and intimate to our emotional being. I cannot think of another filmmaker, other than perhaps Quentin Tarantino, so well-adept at writing from the female perspective. The movie itself is quirky yet realist, but all of ensemble characters are well-developed absent of any clichés. They are very contextualized human beings with love, warmth, and empathy. Mike Mills wants the best for them, as do you, the viewer. There is so much world building within that it becomes a world that can only be his. You love these characters; you are sympathetic and want them to find and love themselves. The screenplay itself is sharp, with clever story lines and a much looser narrative framework. Some of dialogue is instantly quotable and carries an incessant amount of profundity and poignancy. It also adheres to a visual language we see at times in graphic novel adaptations in its atmosphere, montages, and visual repetition. The production and costume design also brilliantly bring this atmospheric element to life. The script is also highly metaphorical in its symbolism that it genuinely makes you look at life in a different way.

There is probably not a strong ensemble of actors in a film this year. Just about every one of actors are at top of their game. Filled with such strong, complex, flawed, emotive, beautiful, warm, wonderful characters. Yet my favorite two performances were by Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig. Bening has never been more natural and emotionally inviting as she is here, and her sense of wonder and introspection is infectious, but it’s Gerwig that surprised me most, offering probably her most emotionally vulnerable performance to date. She plays Abbie, a punk feminist with a big personality and a lot of wisdom to offer. Yet you soon find out she is just as fractured and afraid as the rest of us. Impeded by both loneliness and physical sickness, you can read her anxiety and emotional conflict all over her face and body. In one standout scene, the layers begin to unpeel in what was probably the cringiest, funny, and sad sex scene of the year. I personally have not seen a performance on screen this year more vulnerable than she is in this particular scene. Not only does Gerwig mix the right amount of humor, heart and ache, but she makes you laugh and reflect as well. Turn in point, a brutally honest dinner conversation towards the end of movie about our approaches to femininity and feminism that is too good to spoil. Overall, 20th Century Women is preoccupied lyrically about the passage of time and change. About us grappling with an inevitable tomorrow while learning to love yourself and giving yourself to the world, and after three viewings, it just may be my favorite movie of the year. [A+]

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