“You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” 20th Century Women

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

[Image Source: Wikpedia]

“Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.” – Dorothea (Annette Bening)

Given the historic events of this weekend, notably the (International) Women’s March, seeing the acclaimed new semi-autobiographical film by director Mike Mills (Beginners) seemed like an inspired, appropriate, and perhaps too-on-the-nose choice, so view it we did.

The film is really good – not so sure it’s great – but, with its marvelous cast, humane and conscientiously inclusive perspective, and immersive approach that impressively turns back the viewer’s clock to 1979, 20th Century Women is worth your attention.

Inspired by his gratitude for his own mother and sisters, Mills, who calls the film a “love letter to the women who raised him,” paints a fictionalized portrait of his own unconventional upbringing that is warm and nostalgic, critical and illusory.

Imagine Norman Rockwell spending his formative years in counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury.

In Santa Barbara, California, Dorothea (a remarkable and raw Annette Bening), abandoned by her husband, is raising son Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann showing nary a sign of “child star” schmaltz) in a ramshackle Victorian with as much character and in as much disrepair as its inhabitants. Perhaps to make ends meet or, more likely, in an Auntie Mame-like gesture of keeping life as one never-ending banquet, Dorothea has rented rooms to a cast of characters, including potter and auto mechanic (?) William (Billy Crudup in all his shaggy, boho charm) and photographer and Talking Heads-aficionado Abbie (a luminous and heartbreaking Greta Gerwig). Rounding out this band of lovable misfits, Elle Fanning (Maleficent) plays Julie, Jamie’s childhood friend whose acts of teen rebellion are lifted straight from a “Me Decade” ABC Afterschool Special; yet, in Fanning’s capable hands, Julie’s defiance is hauntingly and, at times, comically authentic.

(NOTE: Crudup and Gerwig are on a roll, recently turning in nuanced performances as Theodore H. White and Nancy Tuckerman, respectively, in the exceptional Jackie.)

Films in 20th Century Women‘s milieu – the quirky, uber-liberal, “hippie Addams Family” residing in a sprawling but dilapidated  homestead, arguing unrealistically about existential philosophy, and experimenting with alternative realities – too often devolve into the kind of twee “coming-of-age” self-indulgence that makes my skin crawl. Yes, Grand Budapest Hoteldirector Wes Anderson, I’m looking at you.  Blessedly, 20th Century Women is no Royal Tennenbaums.

Mills contextualizes his film with chronology-bending narrative (the voice-overs that relate characters’ backstories and future activities are a clever and sobering touch), rich period details (including iconic photography, music, decor, and video of the era – the characters’ varied reactions to Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence speech” are particularly telling), and evocative time-lapse cinematography (including an overt reference to landmark-documentary-of-the-era Koyaanisqatsi with its still-stinging indictment of the ephemeral foolishness of mankind). If you survived the 70s, this film will speak to you on many levels.

As for the film’s feminism, it is as sly an overview as I’ve ever seen on film – as elusive and confounding as the topic can be in a United States of America that glorifies our free-will and independence while simultaneously fearing our free-will and independence. Mills’ script, aided and abetted by delicate performances all around, deftly weaves in and out of the core principle that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

Bening’s Dorothea (born in 1924) is regularly labeled throughout the film has having “come from the Depression,” she herself embracing that tag, obsessed with big band music and carefully tracking her stocks in the newspaper every day. Yet, she is also attracted to the infinite possibility of this messy new world before her, approaching its ugly rock-n-roll and libertine mores with alternating fascination and revulsion. The tension Dorothea suffers as a free-agent wanting to explore this evolving society versus her role as a parent fearing its potential dark repercussions is palpable. Regarding her son, Dorothea laments to Abbie at one point, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.”

When Abbie introduces Dorothea’s son Jamie to the books Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan and Our Bodies, Ourselves by Judy Norsigian, he chooses to read a particular passage to his mother, one that highlights the marginalization and invisibility unfairly cast upon an individual due to age and gender. It is a tender moment wherein he is using another’s text to evoke understanding. Dorothea’s visceral response is even more revealing when she dismisses the gesture outright, indicating that her very personal experience on this planet cannot be reduced or codified into a few well-meaning “modern” paragraphs. Bening is understated yet devastating in this scene, a quiet storm moment exemplifying beautifully the delicate balancing act in 20th Century Women: reclaiming the voice of the individual … which is as feminist an act as one can imagine.

“She smokes Salems because they’re healthy.” – Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Romanticized beyond all reason: Bonnie and Clyde, A New Musical at Dexter, Michigan’s Encore Theatre

Bonnie and Clyde

Mahalia Greenway and Adam Woolsey as Bonnie and Clyde [Photos by the author – don’t try this yourself. The Encore doesn’t like photography]

Bonnie and Clyde’s bank-robbing crime spree across the American South-land is one of those bits of folklore that has been romanticized beyond all reason.

Maybe it’s Warren Beatty’s fault, aided and abetted as he was by Faye Dunaway with all those chic tams she wore – in the iconic 1967 film.

Regardless, people return to this timeworn tale time and again as the closest thing we have to our own Romeo and Juliet mythology.

The fantasy is as misplaced as could be as these two bandits were cold-blooded killers who saw bank robbery as a quick means to an easy buck,

Against the backdrop of the Depression-era dust bowl, it’s an easy leap to paint these two self-absorbed hooligans as Robin Hood and Marian for the Tea Partying crowd.

Bonnie and Clyde 3

Peter Crist and Elizabeth Jaffe as Buck and Blanche Barrow [Ensemble members Brendan Kelly and Andrew James Buckshaw in the background]

It’s interesting, then, in this era of gun romance and big gubmint fears that Frank Wildhorn chose to musicalize the Bonnie and Clyde legend – no end of “Revolution in ‘Murica” themes to plumb in the source material.

The Broadway production of Wildhorn’s Bonnie and Clyde starred puckish Newsies-lad Jeremy Jordan alongside Laura Osnes. The show came and went, as all Wildhorn productions that don’t star ex-wife Linda Eder always seem to do (seriously, the dude can’t write a memorable melody to save his soul). However, the show has taken on a second life in the semi-pro circuit as regional theatre embraces the tuner’s timely allegory (and let’s be honest … small cast).

I spent this chilly October night at Dexter, Michigan’s exceptional Encore Theatre, thoroughly enjoying their inventive and cheeky take on the show. Directed by Bonnie and Clyde alum Ron Baumanis with a clear eye toward efficiency, economy, and zip, Encore’s production is a pleasure.

Ensemble

Ensemble

Populated with an ensemble cast long on talent and wit, this production hums along at a fine clip, compensating nicely for Ivan Menchell’s under-cooked book (lyrics are by Don Black) which fails to give us much, if any detail, on why Bonnie and Clyde are in love: be that in love with each other; with gun play; with robbing banks; or with snazzy hats, claw-foot bathtubs, and jangling ukuleles.

Encore’s production team does a brilliant job utilizing their compressed industrial space to accommodate a full orchestra (somewhere hidden from view) and a Rube Goldberg set (by Daniel C. Walker) built of ramps, doors, cages, and stairs, beautifully representing a host of locations across Depression-era Texas.

There is smart use of rear-projections as well, highlighting location changes and grounding the production in historical images of the titular anti-heroes and their family and friends. It is a clever touch, visually filling in the script’s gaps and providing an impactful and visceral connection to these desperate lives.

Leads Adam Woolsey (Clyde) and Mahalia Greenway (Bonnie) are all CW-era sparkle as the mobster sweethearts, creating a series of exquisite stage pictures of these exquisite criminals. The script doesn’t give them much in terms of character development (and Wildhorn’s tunes force every cast member into the nether reaches of head voice). Regardless, Woolsey and Greenway offer a compelling and at times compassionate overview of kindred spirits whose short-sighted distortion of the Horatio Alger myth, calcified by American preoccupation with fame at all costs, leads them down the darkest paths imaginable.

Bonnie and Clyde 4I got a big kick from Peter Crist and Elizabeth Jaffe as the script’s second bananas Buck Barrow (Clyde’s brother) and wife Blanche. This pair brings the smolder and the comic relief. (Who knew those two thematic elements could co-exist so darn nicely?) Crist and Jaffe are electric in every scene, and Jaffe is a postmodern Eve Arden, crackerjack with a line and not wasting a moment on stage. Delightful to watch.

The show runs through October 25 and is well worth catching to see a game cast of talented local performers dance through this fractured tale of the American Dream. Showtimes and ticket information can be found at http://www.theencoretheatre.org/now-playing/

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Image by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Drawing of yours truly as a superhero by Lee Gaddis of Gaddis Gaming

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.