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The 2010s American indie scene is rife with terrible films that on the surface seem exactly like 20th Century Women. These films tend to be character studies, stylistically affected to an irritating degree, handsomely but blandly shot with digital cameras. Their visual tics are more about distracting the audience than contributing to some sort of coherent aesthetic vision. The films are aimless, meandering, like their creators don’t really know what to do or say with these characters. They are limp and forgettable, a disposable cinema without perspective.
20th Century Women isn’t that at all, somehow. I actually liked it a lot, but I would likely have put off watching it forever despite its positive reception simply because it projects that image of indie trash. That’s my bias in action, I guess. In truth, it’s the film so many indie directors think they’re making, the sort of (excuse my cliche) keenly observed character piece they wish they could come up with.
So if 20th Century Women has a perspective, unlike so many of its contemporaries, what is that perspective? I was intrigued by its thoughts about repression, and what it means to share your life with someone. The film constantly reminds us that Annette Bening’s character, Dorothea, is a child of the Great Depression. She’s come of age in an era that discouraged emotional openness, particularly in men but in women as well. Despite how much she values friendship — inviting practically everyone she meets to come to her weekend dinner parties — she’s troubled by oversharing and is comfortable with most of a person’s life being kept private. While she has a grudging respect for the thinkers of second-wave feminism, the idea of normalizing frank discussions of menstruation and sexual behavior is disgusting to her.
What makes the character great, though, is how Bening doesn’t play her as bundled up and tightly wound. Her performance is loose, friendly, approachable. It’s not a psychological performance, steered entirely by the character’s history. It’s the sort of acting I could genuinely call naturalistic; a far cry from the faux-naturalism that’s all uhs and ums and fake stammering.
It’s the total reverse of Greta Gerwig’s Abbie, a character whose liberated beliefs are belied by fear and anxiety about her place in the world. She’s not tense, exactly, just nervous. Gerwig’s familiar with playing young women who don’t have their lives together, but what I like about Abbie in particular is how every line and gesture is inflected with a sort of underlying melancholy. It’s the saddest I’ve ever felt watching a Gerwig performance, and even the final montage’s revelation that things work out for her didn’t extinguish my empathy for her days of confusion and desperation.
But it’s director Mike Mills who was the big surprise for me here. I mentioned visual affectation as part of the indie plague earlier, and it’s not absent from 20th Century Women. There are tracking shots of moving cars that look like degraded VHS footage, sped-up scenes of partying dancers, stock footage montages and insert shots of whatever the narration is discussing. There’s more than a little putting on of airs here. What makes it tolerable is that, although the film has no real coherent aesthetic, it never feels insincere or artificial. It is affected, yes, but in an honest way. Mills never pushes too hard on these visual fixations, either. The film is never overbearing, nor is it so lacking in personality as to be completely dull. It’s a good balance, and while I never found its imagery all that compelling, I respected the attempt. 20th Century Women is a good film, and Mills is a good director. I’d very much like to see what he comes up with next.