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Reviews for December 28th, 2016

20th Century Women

Directed by Mike Mills

      In 1979, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) lives with teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in a dilapidated house in Santa Barbara, California. William (Billy Crudup), the carpenter, is the only man other around ever since her divorce. Unable to persuade her son to bond with William and not knowing what to do about it all on her own, she asks Jamie's friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer renting a room in the house, to help guide Jamie onto the right path in life.

      There have been many films throughout history about dysfunctional families. Some of them reach the heights of The 400 Blows, Boyhood, Ordinary People and American Beauty while others reach the lows of painfully schmaltzy films like The Family Stone. 20th Century Women falls somewhere in the mediocre middle. The screenplay by writer/director Mike Mills avoids schmaltz, but it feels simultaneously overstuffed and undercooked with a lazy, dishonest third act. Occasionally, there's some witty dialogue and comic relief to be found, but this is much more of a serious drama than a comedy. Is the love triangle between William, Dorothea and Abbie really necessary, though? It adds some welcome dark elements to the narrative, but it also feels creepy and poorly resolved by the end. The sequences with the car driving down the highway look visually trippy, but come across as distracting and pretentious while taking away from the film's realism.

      Each character is flawed which makes him or her all the more interesting, especially Dorothea who behaves like a narcissist more often than not. Her relationship with Jamie falls apart once she tries to get Julie and Abbie do her job of parenting him for her. They have problems of their own that they're dealing with respectively, so they're not exactly be the best role models for him. While it's nice to see some richly-drawn characters with arcs in a film, unfortunately, Dorothea's character arc is not quite believable because it's too rushed, oversimplified and contrived.

      Do you remember the symbolism of the plate that Beth broke into two pieces in Ordinary People? Both Beth and Dorothea are the kind of people who think that they can just glue the plate back together and everything will be fine once again when it really won't because they're both narcissists who, like most narcissists, aren't aware of their own narcissism. Unlike Ordinary People, though, 20th Century Women has a third act that's rather pat and naively optimistic/hopeful. It's as though Mills decided to cop out by playing it safely and became too scared to dig deeper into the darker areas of Dorothea's dysfunctional family life.

      Annette Bening, 20th Century Women's heart and soul, gives a tour de force, mesmerizing, note-perfect performance. She's so great in her role as Dorothea that you forget that you're watching Annette Bening. In other words, she manages to find the emotional core of her character which is why she deserves an Academy Award for Best Actress. Mike Mills has her radiant performance to thank for saving 20th Century Women from being inert and completely forgettable.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24 Films.
Opens at AMC/Loews Lincoln Square and Angelika Film Center.
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