Short Review: 20th Century Women

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I can imagine what a negative review of 20th Century Women would say. I can imagine someone making the argument that the movie is nothing but a male fantasy about the awesomeness of women, and about how three generations of strong females turn a young boy into a man. I can imagine such an argument, because we’ve seen movies that look like 20th Century Women falter in exactly those areas. They settle for a condescending male point of view, and relegate their female characters to the role of manic-pixie-dream-girl and wise motherly figure. This is not such a movie. This is so much better than that.

Mike Mills, who broke through with Beginnersa lovely memoir about his father, now makes a lovely memoir about his formative years alongside his mother. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a woman who grew up during the depression and now raises a son (Lucas Jade Zunmann) in late-seventies Santa Barbara. Fearing the lack of a strong male presence in her son’s life, she recruits the help of two other women. Abby (Greta Gerwig), a post-punk photographer who rents a room in her house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), the best friend who Dorothea’s son hopes would become “something more”. These women are not supporting characters to the boy’s growth as a person. They are real characters, with inner lives, desires, conflicts and flaws.

There are five main characters in the movie (the other being another room-renter played by Billy Crudup), and they are all treated with respect and complexity. The biggest strength of 20th Century Women might very well be how generous it is toward them. It is a fresh and breezy movie, that manages to pack an acute sentimental punch inside its visions of pleasurable sunny California. There are moments in the movie (such as an intimate role-playing session between Gerwig and Crudup) that jump back and forth between comedy and tragedy in a way that only a person with a deep interest in human life could pull off.

Every character in this magnificent cast gets their chance to shine, but none of them shines brighter than Bening’s Dorothea. Turning what is essentially an ode to his mother into an ensemble piece is one of the director’s most brilliant choices. Bening shines when interacting with other performers, revealing intense amounts of information in every interaction her character has with the people who populate her household. The easy, natural vibe of Bening’s performance binds the movie together. We don’t need to be told that Dorothea is a formidable woman, we experience it ourselves. 20th Century Women is a lovely experience of humanist filmmaking at its best, and if that weren’t enough, it serves as a reminder that one of our greatest living actresses is still turning out some of her best work.

Grade: 9 out of 10

…But Mostly Me: A Review of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

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It was as if the Sundance Film Festival had become a parody of itself. When a movie with a title like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl wins both the Jury and the Audience award, some eyebrows are going to be raised. Just the title was enough for critics to become wary of what kind of cutesy indie-trash this movie was supposed to be. By the time I saw the movie my Twitter feed already seemed to hate it. I went into the movie ready to give it a fair shake. If anything, I was hoping I would like it and then be the one contrarian voice defending it. No such luck. The movie starts with the “me” of the title, a high school senior named Greg (Thomas Mann), narrating that this is the story of how he made a movie so bad it killed someone. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will hopefully not kill anyone, but it won’t be for lack of being terrible.

I don’t really like to use the term “indie trash” that often, since it implies that no good movie could ever be made with this aesthetic, but I think Me and Earl and the Dying Girl could end up being the perfect example of what the term actually means. We’re talking about a movie that seems to be a hollow shell designed to exploit the aesthetics of the genre. What aesthetics am I talking about? As far as the story is concerned, the teenage melodrama. More specifically, the teenage cancer melodrama. And as far as visual style is concerned, the easiest way to describe the look of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is as a pastiche of indie filmmaking trends. You have a bunch of hand-held long takes, you have a bunch of shots in which the characters are located to the side of the frame, and most apparent of all, you have a movie that wants to look like a Wes Anderson movie (it was even produced by Indian Paintbrush, the production company responsible for much of Anderson’s work), but has been made by people who have no idea of why Anderson’s intrinsically designed and overproduced aesthetic works well in his movies.

While we’re on that topic, let me go on a bit of a tangent. You see, Wes Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, but a lot of people don’t like him and I often have to defend myself and my love for his movies. The artificial design of a Wes Anderson movie works because it stands in defiance to the real world. It presents us with a world every inch of which is perfectly designed, where any glimpse of true emotion would seem out of place. His characters resist giving in to their emotions, but they fail. That’s were the drama comes from, and that’s why they’re so effective. It’s the drama of a perfectionist who can’t handle the imperfect nature of being a human. In other words, there is a reason for his movies to look like they do. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl looks like a faux-Anderson design because the filmmakers (led by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon) thought it would make it look cool, or it would help them appeal to a certain audience. The story of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has no real relationship to the way it looks.

It doesn’t help that there is not a single bit of originality in the movie’s story. Again, it’s not a matter of every movie having to be something completely new. I mean, the cancer melodrama has been done many times before, including last year’s The Fault in our StarsNow, that movie had problems of its own, but it at least understood where the strength and the “truth” of John Green’s original novel comes from. It focuses on the life of its main character, and tries to do it justice in making the audience look at the world through the eyes of a girl who has suffered from cancer since she was a child. The script for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was written by one Jesse Andrews, who adapted it from his very own novel, which makes me think the novel must be as much of a hack job as the movie.

The problem with Andrews’s script is that it seems to just be hitting certain bits just because that’s what’s supposed to happen in a movie like this one. Everything is predictable, nothing surprises. The minute we meet Greg’s friend Earl (R.J. Cyler) we know he and Greg will have a big fight toward the end of the movie. The minute we meet Greg’s history professor (Jon Bernthal) we know he will deliver a speech giving him an important life lesson later in the movie. Even the things that are meant to surprise us are predictable. Like narrator Greg assuring us a certain thing is not going to happen later on in the movie only to pull the rug from under us later on in the movie.

But there is an even bigger reason than the predictability for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to feel as artificial and pre-fabricated as it does. Despite making mention of three different people in its title, the movie might as well be called “Me and Me and Me”, because Greg is the only character it has any interest in caring about. The most infuriating thing about the move is that everyone around this boy is a far more interesting character than he is, and yet, the movie insists on us looking at these people thinking only of how Greg’s life will be affected by them. Now, the movie is narrated by Greg, so it makes sense we would see it from his perspective. It just turns out that his perspective is incredibly selfish and doesn’t really change throughout the movie. If you asked me to describe the arc of the movie I would say it’s the story of how a young girl dying of cancer helps this stupid selfish boy get into college.

And let’s talk about the “dying girl” of the title. Her name is Rachel (Olivia Cook) and she has been diagnosed with Leukemia. Greg’s mom forces him to hang out with her, and they quickly become friends. It is also not long until Rachel finds out Greg spends most of his free time making parody movies with his “co-worker” Earl (Greg has commitment issues, so he calls Earl his co-worker instead of his friend. That’s how annoying the characterization in this movie is). Rachel likes watching the movies these two make, but that’s pretty much it as far as her involvement is concerned. She doesn’t join them, she doesn’t create anything with them, they don’t become friends. That is the movie’s biggest crux. It is not interested in the friendship between Greg and Rachel being a relationship, it is only interested in how Rachel’s situation affects Greg.

The movie is even less interested in Earl, who is a bag full of unexplored racial stereotypes. If you want to read a great, detailed description of the movie’s horrible treatment of Earl as a character, then I recommend this piece by Odie ‘Odienator’ Henderson. As for me, I am saddened that -beyond the stereotypes- the movie has so little interest in even thinking a little bit about Earl in relation to anyone. If the character was going to live in a stereotypically black neighborhood, the movie could have at least gotten some milage out of exploring what it means for these two kids with different backgrounds to be friends, and how it affects their relationship (think, for example, of the elegant way Alfonso Cuarón uses narration to do just this in Y Tú Mamá También).

Most of my problems with the movie can be encapsulated in the fact that Rachel and Earl don’t become friends. Why would they? They don’t really need to interact. They are only there to have an effect on Greg’s life, because of course they do. They are a black guy and a woman, that’s their role in life -and in movies- to help white guys become better. To help selfish white kids get into college. To fuel the stupid patriarchal notion that only stories about a white boy are universal stories. To make me angry. And to make Me and Earl and the Dying Girl a bad movie.

Grade: 3 out of 10