In the Land of Women
And now we wrap up the Oscar catch-up with a pretty low key film that has nonetheless managed to appear on several critics’ top ten lists. It’s a coming of age drama taking in advice from a surrounding community of the time, wait shit that was Manchester by the Sea. What is with Oscar nominees and the “it takes a village” mantra?
Either way it goes, we have Annette Bening playing Dorothy Fields, a single mother in 1979 Santa Barbara, California raising her only son Jamie (Lucas James Zumann). Dorothy lives with her son in a big house that’s being renovated through the help of a quiet bachelor named William (Billy Crudup) and she rents a room to a Feminist photographer named Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Lucas usually hangs out at home with his childhood friend that he badly wants to sleep with, Julie (Elle Fanning). Being young and stupid, Jamie is going through some typical teenage angst and Dorothy is finding a tough time raising the boy on her own. I mean she tried recruiting William to be a father figure, but he’s pretty useless when it comes to social interactions. So Dorothy enlists the help of Julie and Abbie to help raise Jamie, and impart lessons to the boy she could not teach him…stuff like how to smoke, walk like a man, and discuss the science of orgasms.
To the film’s credit, while it’s a very low key affair, the movie still manages to engage and entertain through some witty, dry comedy while all being headlined by Annette Bening, who very much deserves her Oscar Nomination for Best Lead Actress. She plays an atypical mother that’s not aggressive in raising her son, but seems at a loss for ideas in how to raise him as he enters adulthood. So she rarely raises her voice against him, and instead opts to chide him through dry wit and nonchalantly approving his trips out on his own. She’s a unique character, and Bening is truly incredible in this role through a very subdued performance that feels no less intriguing. But her character does express more concern for how her son is being raised, and she bears her teeth out more for her two assistant mothers of Jamie.
Greta Gerwing as Abbie was by far the most interesting of the surrogates, mostly because she initially seems like she’s an out-of-it hippie chick until you get to know her and her various real problems. I say “real” because the issues felt genuine to me as opposed to some manufactured nonsense typically pumped out by the Hollywood machine. Further, she, like the other characters in the film, have complicated back stories but they never feel melodramatic the way Manchester by the Sea felt to me. Their problems don’t feel like tragedies, they just feel like a natural part of life from plain ol’ cruddy luck. And yet, Abbie still has multiple dimensions when it comes to her body, sex, and her relationship with Jamie.
The pair do bond over the topic of sex quite a bit through several bits of Feminist literature that Abbie supplies Jamie with. But they also form a friendship after Abbie finds out she didn’t have cervical cancer as she had feared, but she can’t conceive a child or it would kill her. It’s a complicated topic that the film handles well with maturity and grace, without ever feeling heavy handed. Hell, what I like about the film is that it never tries to get on a soapbox to proclaim a message without consequence. Because Jamie does in fact have to face consequences for some of the shit he says based on the teachings he has received. Enter Elle Fanning to teach the boy some things about being a man.
I’ve know Fanning to be a good actress but this is the first time I’ve genuinely been impressed with her performance. Like the other characters, she’s got a lot of shit going through her mind and has a curiously complicated relationship with Jamie. The pair have been childhood friends and Fanning’s character has sectioned his ass off to the friend zone, despite his desires telling him that he loves her. The film actually tackles this topic the way this topic should: goddamn right he’s in the friend zone, and he’s going to stay there because she’s just not sexually into him even though she prefers multiple other partners. This is a conclusion that many grown ass adults seem to have difficulty comprehending (see: MRA forums for a trip into madness), and the movie just decides to have a frank conversation about sex between friends.
I do have to praise Jamie’s actor, Zumann, somewhat as he’s our primary point of view character, but the focus of the film is on the aforementioned women. Zumann handles his role as our guide into his life both through his partial-narration and the way he talks about life with the other actresses. He avoids the typical trapping of a Hat-type character, mostly through the writer actually giving him a damn personality. Sure it’s that of angsty 16-year-old, but it’s at the very least believable mostly because he’s written by the director, Mike Mills, who has made it abundantly clear that this film is a semi-autobiographical take on his own upbringing. Also, Jamie shows why he’s had difficulty bonding with men in his life through Billy Crudup’s character, who is a bit more complicated than what you initially see him as.
So damn, all these fantastic characters hanging about and talking about life must mean we’re in for a great story, right? Well…that’s kind of why I’m not in love with this film. Don’t get me wrong, this is a damn fine film that has earned every bit of critical reception it has received, especially for its acting. However, I didn’t much have an anchor to the events as they unfolded because, much like Everybody Wants Some!!, the film just goes about without any sense of direction. Now I’ve recognized that I haven’t fallen completely in love with other dramas where a traditional plot does not exist, but Moonlight still managed to make my Top 3 of 2016 despite having a very non-traditional narrative. I suppose my love for a film with such a story depends on strong performances with strong scenes that jump out in my mind.
While in Moonlight I recall the beach scene with Ali, the first kiss scene, the bullying scene, the reunion between Black and his mother, and the reconciliation between Chiron and Kevin; I struggle to remember a single scene from 20th Century Women as picture perfect even though it’s been more than a week since I’ve seen it compared to seeing Moonlight three months ago. This may be a matter of taste, but I wasn’t absolutely crazy about 20th Century Women. It also didn’t help the film pulls some avant garde scene transitions that do look cool but really don’t serve much of a purpose.
Still, as a showcase for various actresses of various ages showing off some stellar performances, 20th Century Women more than rises to the occasion. I do believe Gerwing or Fanning should have at least been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, taking up Michelle Williams’ heavily underutilized spot. So for exceptional acting, I’ll award this with a high…