“The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
We’re getting further and further into the 21st century, but a number of the year’s best dramas have been rooted firmly in the century before. One of them is even named after last century.
20th Century Women isn’t particularly mired in a historical moment — the same story could take place now, more or less — though the airing of Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech takes a prominent role, resonating with eerie accuracy for these modern times more than 37 years later. 20th Century Women is writer/director Mike Mills long-awaited follow-up to 2011’s Beginners, which was was semi-autobiographically based on Mills’ father, who came out as gay late in life. The portrayal won Christopher Plummer a much-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Dorothea, the driving force in 20th Century Women, is loosely modeled on Mills’ mother and fabulously portrayed by Annette Bening, who is also likely to get an Oscar nod for her troubles. (It’s a crowded race this year, however.)
Like Beginners, 20th Century Women bucks genre conventions to tell a humane story about realistic people. There’s less quirk here than in Beginners (which had a subtitled dog performance) and a little less plot, too — Dorothea is a single mother raising her teen son Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann) in a house she also rents to two subletters, William (Billy Crudup) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Meanwhile, Jamie is engaged in a will-they-or-won’t-they teen friendship with Julie (Elle Fanning), who is already quite sexually experienced for her age but doesn’t want to complicate her relationship with Jamie by giving in to his carnal desires. Early in the film, Jamie engages in some stupid teenage behavior that nearly gets him killed, awakening Dorothea to the fact that Jamie may need more guidance in life than he can provide. She enlists Abbie and Julie to help her keep an eye on her son.
That could be fuel for a lot of nutty plot contrivances in a broader film, but in 20th Century Women that setup hardly matters. Abbie takes it upon herself to educate Jamie using feminist literature and teaches him all about the clitoris, resulting in some very funny conversations (and an equally amusing brawl with a peer). Julie doesn’t do much in the way of watching out for him, as she has her own turmoil to deal with. Mostly, the film is a series of vignettes about these characters interacting with one another. Abbie is dealing with the fallout of a battle with cervical cancer, and tries out a friendship-with-benefits on the free-spirited William. Julie has unprotected sex and worries about the consequences. Jamie goes on a spontaneous road trip or two, causing Dorothea to fret further about his safety. None of these plot elements are terribly novel in their own right, but the way they’re spun together, they’re utterly compelling.
20th Century Women uses several characters’ voice over and period photographs to set us in a time and a place — Southern California, 1979, to be exact. Using dialogue, it flashes forward to tell us what will become of certain characters, including when and how they will die in some cases. This expands the scope beyond the rather intimate dramedy we see, encapsulating the past and future as well as the present, so that the movie becomes about these people’s rich, full lives. The title is something of a misnomer, since Jamie is the central character, and William is given roughly equal consideration as Abbie and Julie are. Two-fifths of the cast is male, including the protagonist — yet it is the trio of females who become the most striking figures in the movie.
Bening is sublime as Dorothea, a woman not easily defined, who is written simultaneously as overprotective and underreacting. (The fact that she’s based on Mills’ mother feels right, since it’d be difficult to create a character this complex and contradictory out of thin air.) Gerwig shines (as she always does) as Abbie, the scarlet-haired punk and the woman in this film who feels the most prepared to break out of the 20th century and enter the 21st. But I was also surprised at Lucas Jade Zumann’s portrayal of Jamie, who on paper sounds like the sort of precocious teenage boy we’ve seen in countless coming-of-age dramas, and yet feels fresh as written by Mills. Though he causes some minor havoc and has certain self-serving proclivities, he’s an inherently good soul underneath, providing a compelling anchor for the movie. What emerges is a unique film that feels both personal and universal, containing very few big moments but a collection of perfectly captured small ones that linger in the mind the way little memories of our own lives do.
By contrast, Hidden Figures is about as down-the-middle as they come as far as historical dramas go — for once, that isn’t such a bad thing. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer as a trio of NASA employees who helped get Americans into space for the first time. Katherine (Henson) is a math whiz, the first African-American called up to the Big Boys’ office; Mary (Monae) dreams of becoming an engineer, but finds segregated schools getting in her way; Dorothy (Spencer) can’t get the promotion she deserves and takes it upon herself to learn how the program’s first computer operates.
Hidden Figures co-stars Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, and Kirsten Dunst as white folk who have varying degrees of blinders on about what things are actually like for black women in a place like this at that time, and how capable these women can be at their jobs. (Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali and Everybody Wants Some‘s Glen Powell round out the cast as Katherine’s studly love interest and the hunky, charming astronaut John Glenn. It’s a stellar cast all around.) The script and direction are both slightly hammy in moments, and the whole film is very broad, allowing us to bear witness to injustice without ever really feeling the true shame and horror of race relations in Virginia at this time the way a film like Loving does. But you know what? That’s perfectly fine. Hidden Figures is more entertaining than it probably ought to be, given how pat and predictable it can be, preferring an empowering, 21st century portrayal of three women who are well-deserving of having their story told. As an audience member, it’s easy enough to go along on this ride, even if it all feels a bit too neatly packaged to do the real drama of this moment justice. Sometimes, a feel-good drama is enough.Christine is Hidden Figures‘ direct opposite — you could easily dub it the “feel-bad movie of the year.” It, too, tells the story of a real life woman who made a notable impact in the second half of the 20th century. Christine Chubbuck was a news reporter in Sarasota, Florida who suffered from severe depression. It’s the second of two 2016 releases centered on this tragic figure, and though most reviews give away “the ending” of the movie (certainly, the only reason we’re watching a movie about this woman in the first place), I won’t. Suffice to say, it isn’t pretty.
Christine follows Nightcrawler‘s lead in examining the exploitative “if it bleeds, it leads” bloodlust of the nightly news, with a protagonist who is equally as off-putting as that film’s sociopathic protagonist, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal. And like Nightcrawler, Christine contains a fantastic lead performance that really ought to be garnering more attention for Rebecca Hall. Christine isn’t an easy film to watch, especially as its subject spirals more and more out of the bounds of socially acceptable behavior, at one point predicting the advent of reality TV decades before it actually happened. (And look how that turned out.) Christine co-stars Tracey Letts as Christine’s gruff boss (in a similarly sympathetic antagonist role to the one he played in Indignation), Michael C. Hall as the news anchor Christine unrequitedly crushes on, J. Smith-Cameron as Christine’s concerned mother, and Maria Dizzia as a friend who attempts to help Christine out of her doldrums. It also contains a downbeat and wonderfully ironic utilization of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song.
All three films are impressive in their own way, though they range from broad studio dramedy to quiet, pleasant indie to deeply disturbing drama. And all are anchored by compelling performances from the actresses who bring these characters to life, giving some 20th century women new life in the 21st.