20th Century Women

February 12, 2017 at 9:52 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Much has been made (as well it should) of the fact that there were several really good African American-centered films this year (“Moonlight,” “Fences,” “Loving,” “Birth of a Nation”). I’m glad that the protests against #oscarssowhite have helped to drive visibility for Black projects and Black directors. However, we now need something similar for women-centered films. We have a dearth of films about complex women characters, as has been evidenced by the famous Bechdel Test. The test was first proposed by Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.” The test is simple: does a movie have at least two named female characters who talk to each other at any point about something other than a man. If yes, the film passes the test. Though it has gotten better, it is shocking how few films pass this test. Well, here’s one that does. “20th Century Women” focuses on Dorothea (Annette Bening), a mother in her mid-50s, trying to raise a teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) in 1979 Santa Barbara. Dorothea feels left behind by a culture that is rapidly changing and she fears that she can no longer connect with her boy. So, she recruits the help of two younger women, played by Greta Gerwig (“Francis Ha,” “Jackie”) and Elle Fanning (“Maleficent,” “Trumbo”). Those three women make up the backbone of this film. They are complex, beautiful characters, fully realized on screen by three fantastic actors. The heart of the film is really Dorothea and her attempts to connect with her son, while also keeping him at bay emotionally. She is guarded, despite not wanting to admit to herself that she is. Bening brings such grace and strength and humor to Dorothea that it’s impossible not to love her, in much the same ambivalent way her son does. Young Lucas Hedges is nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Manchester by the Sea.” However, it’s actually 15 year old Zumann who should have that nomination, in my opinion. He manages to hold his own against a powerhouse cast, often having to show a range of complex emotions. Director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker,” “Beginners”) based these characters on his own experience with his mother and you can tell. There is a truthfulness to these stories that you seldom find in pure fiction. This was a lovely, inspiring, funny, moving and deeply touching film. Now we just need a #oscarssomale campaign so that we can get a lot more works made just like this one.

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