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'20th Century Women': Vive la Différence
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
03:03PM / Friday, February 03, 2017
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Annette Bening is the matriarch in the 1970s drama '20th Century Women.'

Folks who require a certain amount of shock, awe and disturbingly aberrant behavior in their cinema might do well to skip filmmaker Mike Mills' highly intelligent "20th Century Women" and perhaps instead focus on the 3-ring circus currently posing as our national body politic. However, if you're the sort who still believes there's room for truth, honest analysis, thoughtful contemplation and selfless, humanitarian goals, then here's your ticket to a sophisticated and high-minded respite from that hopefully temporary insanity lately threatening our democracy.

Rather than informing what "20th Century Women" is about, it might be easier to relate what it isn't about, so extensive is its incisively studious examination of single mother Dorothea Fields, her 15-year-old son, Jamie, and the three boarders who have become her surrogate family. What's more, and adding to the movie's allure, one would be hard put to pigeonhole the writer/director's style in imparting his script's numerous, philosophical mullings. There's a touch of Garp's neuroses, a bit of Maude's (from "Harold and Maude" — 1971) wisdom, and a shmear of Altman.

Oh, and there's even a touch of Woody Allen's "Interiors" (1978) as the peripatetic camera moves from room to room in Dorothea's rescued — and always undergoing renovation — rambling Victorian. But in the final analysis, the psychologically intense but all the same quirky chronicle possesses its own temper and meter, replete with an uninhibited narration that not only switches from character to character but alternates between first and third person as well. Phenomenally, we remain unconfused.

You see, they all have problems, not internationally consequential things mind you, but rather, the internally Earth-shattering devils dedicated to haunting us humans as we attempt to ponder those great imponderables. And, because Dorothea & Co. are recognizable, everyday sorts, both their bugaboos and joys are emotionally accessible. Playing Freud, Jung, or whatever mental health protocol you're subscribing to of late, you quietly offer your solution to their discomforts whilst sorting out and comparing your own deterrents to happiness.

Of course, you are thus put in the position of having to define happiness and the generally acknowledged elements that contribute to it, such as love, security, familial harmony and whatever else floats your boat. But fear not these tasks. Granted, some unlikely candidates for viewership, shanghaied into seeing this film by well-meaning missionaries, will long for the comfort of the couch, a big bag of chips, a six-pack and a football game. But for the rest of us smarties, the buoyant goodwill and rather likable characters mitigate the heavy lifting.

That's not to say it doesn't get a bit exhausting at times, our gray matter occasionally harking back to all that obscure gibberish our ethics prof spouted in an attempt to exact the nature of elusively cerebral concepts. But proving that such stuff is better illustrated by characterization, Annette Bening does a heckuva job embodying Dorothea, a portrayal that reminds of the complexity one might find in something by either Ibsen or Chekhov. Just when we think we understand her, she flutters her emotional wings and we are confounded, suspecting that within the mystery of Dorothea is the secret of life, or some reasonable facsimile thereof.

The literary conceit is that women hold the secrets to the life force, or that they are at least more interesting than men. I won't argue with that. After several decades trying to unravel the conundrum that la difference poses, I've come to accede that being in a total muddle about this subject is key to our evolutionary survival. Besides, I've got other things to worry about, like how to finally get that Ferrari, ensure world peace and find out once and for all where that missing sock goes.

But the director is hardly as complacent. Courageously delving into territory where even the greatest philosophers, poets and psychologists may have achieved fame but little empirical truth, Mills gives it the old college try. The effort itself deserves praise. Its Lazy Susan delivery of multiple repartees among the story's principals provides a gratifying, seriocomic dance through the mysteries of this thing called consciousness.

A work of passion and mood, it is creatively emoted by a fine ensemble cast. Complementing Miss Bening's post-Beatnik mother hen, Elle Fanning is enticingly enigmatic as Julie, the gal Dorothea's coming-of-age son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) wishes were more than just a soulmate; Greta Gerwig is evocatively challenging as the resident feminist; and Billy Crudup is handyman William, reticent but sensitively diplomatic when pressed for the male point of view.

Odds are you know these people, their names changed here to protect their innocent pursuit of answers. As such, they merit our empathy, and perchance in their desperately glorious celebration of introspection, tell us a thing or two about "20th Century Women."

"Twentieth Century Women," rated R, is an A24release directed by Mike Mills and stars Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig.  Running time: 119 minutes

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