’20th Century Women’ Is Poignant And Vibrant

It’s ladies’ night at the New York Film Festival. Last week, Ava DuVernay’s searing race examination “13th” became the first documentary to open the fest. Elsewhere, Isabelle Huppert headlines a dark satire about a rape victim, Pedro Almodóvar’s mother-daughter drama “Julieta” adapts three of Alice Munro’s short stories, and Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” features Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart in a triptych about the banality haunting, well, certain women in small-town Montana.

The best of these, “20th Century Women,” which premieres at NYFF this weekend, captures the pliability of life’s expectations at a moment when generations collided and America evolved. That moment is 1979. California’s halcyon hippie days have faded into Jimmy Carter’s proverbial “crisis of confidence.” Second-wave feminism and punk-rock turf wars are enveloped in clouds of cigarette smoke, the nation’s moral morass deciding whether it can still stomach, as the Talking Heads would say, parties and discos.

At least that’s the mood that writer-director Mike Mills captures in the film, a merry and heartfelt drama about Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a divorcée laboring over which ideals to impart upon her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann). A survivor of the Great Depression with dashed dreams of becoming a pilot, Dorothea had Jamie at age 40. Now she’s a stock-market-obsessed chainsmoker who, when not pondering her past and future, rents out rooms in a spacious Santa Barbara home that’s always under construction. 

One room belongs to a maroon-haired photographer named Abbie (Greta Gerwig). In another resides Dorothea’s handyman (Billy Crudup), a burnout who survived the bygone bohemia of the ‘60s. And every night, like clockwork, Jamie’s thoughtful longtime pal Julie (Elle Fanning) escapes her cold mother and climbs the home’s scaffolding to curl up next to him in bed, raising friend-zone frustrations within the newly horny 14-year-old. Alongside Dorothea, these four characters, who take turns narrating the film, form the bedrock of “20th Century Women.” They are varied snapshots, lives filled with the yearning for lost opportunities and the hope for superior possibilities. Their struggle comes in determining how to connect those dots.

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