Friday, 17 February 2017

20th Century Women

It is difficult to know what the audience are supposed to feel from this hippy film

Written by Jason Solomons


‘Yes, ah yes, the novel tells a story,’ wrote EM Forster with a sigh. It’s amazing how often I think film makers would do well to pay heed to the great man.

The thought came flooding back to me during 20th Century Women, when after about an hour I caught myself glancing at my watch, wondering when something, anything, might actually happen. Reader, it never does.Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

As it was highly touted and already well-loved by some on the festival circuit, I was really looking forward to this new film from director Mike Mills, boasting a fine cast including annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig (my, that’s a lot of -ings and -igs).

Alas, I was disappointed by a torpor of self-indulgent film-making that forgot to do the basics, like telling a story or working out what or who the hell the film was supposed to be about.

An ensemble piece, certainly, it’s set in a renovated mansion/ commune in 1979 Santa Barbara, where free-spirit single Mom Dorothea (Bening) is bringing up her teenage son Jamie by enlisting the help of her female lodgers, including kooky, purple-haired art student Gerwig (is this actress ever anything other than kooky?) and bruised local teenage beauty Fanning, who climbs into Jamie’s bed at night but insists on keeping it platonic while she bonks half the other boys in the neighbourhood.

Poor Jamie has to suffer these hippy-fied indignities, with only the hapless, feckless Billy Crudup as moustachioed, male support. Meanwhile we, the audience, are supposed to feel… I’m not sure what. Though the script has some elegant phrases, it’s rarely funny – there’s even a moment where Bening stares at the dullard Crudup and remarks: : ‘You don’t have many funny lines, do you?’

I think the director Mills knows it, otherwise he wouldn’t keep speeding the film up with irritating time-lapse photography and langorous shots of Jamie skateboarding to, like, remind us it’s the 70s. Other than a Jimmy Carter speech on the telly and some Talking Heads on the soundtrack, neither is there much fun had with the period setting.

Now, I like Annette Bening most of the time, but her Dorothea has a sanctimonious air and the character feels forced, as if the mere fact that she’s being played by Bening were enough for us to earn our admiration and sympathy. Bening’s 2010 film for Lisa Cholodenko The Kids Are All Right, with which this shares similar California roots and feminist themes, was far superior, warmer, funnier and more characterful.

The house, too, should become a character in these sorts of films, but Mills fails to map out its geography or the influence it exerts on its inhabitants. But even in the sharpest character studies, something needs to happen. Harsh to say it, but it’s surely an insult that this alleged tribute to strong women is actually about nothing at all.


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