Little Modern Women

It used to be a matter of course that a new big-screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women would go into production every few years. As cinema jumped from silence to sound, from black & white to color, a new version of the same story would grace the screen – ensuring that each new generation of young readers in love with Alcott’s setting & characters could experience them in the flesh. Sadly, that tradition dried up after the 1940s version (featuring Elizabeth Taylor as an overgrown Amy, the littlest woman), leaving a forty-five-year gap before Little Women would be refreshed in adaptation for a new generation. The two major productions that ended that drought—1994’s Gillian Armstrong adaptation and the 2019 Greta Gerwig remix—had a lot of catching up to do, then. It wouldn’t be enough to just revive the same story with the updated stars & filmmaking tech of the modern day. Armstrong & Gerwig instead had to overhaul the material in a drastic display to make up for all the lost time. Both resulting films are great works in their own respects, but only one of the pair truly swung for the fences in its attempt to launch Little Women into the modern world.

On its surface, the 1994 version of Little Women appears to play it safe in its duties as a literary adaptation. Like the Old Hollywood adaptations that came before it, it tells the story of the fictional March sisters’ coming-of-age during the leanest years of the Civil War (an apparently autobiographical account of Alcott’s own youth) in a traditional, linear narrative. The will-they/won’t-they drama of its protagonist’s potentially romantic friendship with the wealthy boy next door drives the heart of the story. Meanwhile, the incidental episodes amongst her sisters that make the novel such a recognizably genuine depiction of childhood (which is almost entirely a series of incidental episodes, at least in memory) fill out the frame around that structural romantic storyline, so that Amstrong’s take on the material is practically a hangout film as much as it is a costume drama. Like in the previous routine of adaptations, the major overhaul in Armstrong’s picture was in seeing up-to-date actors breathe fresh air into iconic scenes from the long-familiar source material. The star-power appeal of 90s-specific heavy-hitters like Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, and baby-faced newsie Christian Bale is the major update to the source material in Armstrong’s adaptation, same as in the previous revisions. The only difference (besides sound & color no longer being new inventions) is in just how much that youth-culture casting was allowed to reshape the text.

In particular, Winona Ryder’s starring role as Jo March is the casting choice that really jolts Alcott’s writing into a 90s era sensibility. As a hopeless 90s Kid™ myself, my love for Winona Ryder as a screen presence predates even my earliest childhood memories – thanks largely to her collaborations with Tim Burton in Beetlejuice & Edward Scissorhands. I still wouldn’t exactly call her approach to acting “versatile,” though. Like fellow Gen-X icons Keanu Reeves, Christina Ricci, and Jeanine Garofalo, Ryder more or less always gives the same performance no matter the project; the trick is just casting her in the exact right role. The brilliance of casting Ryder as Jo March is that her schtick fits both the original profile of the character (a powder keg mix of dorky enthusiasm within her home & righteous disgust with the ways of the world at large) and is distinctly of her own time – effortlessly conveying a sardonic wit central to Gen-X cynicism. If nothing else, the way she rants about the ills of the outside world and indulges in oddball slang like “Capital!” & “Christopher Columbus!” from her writing desk can’t help but recall the parallel narration of Ryder’s career-defining role in Heathers. If Armstrong’s Little Women were made just a few years later it might have updated the setting around Ryder to 1990s suburbia, the way Emma was transformed into Clueless or The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You. As is, Ryder is doing all of that modernization work herself, performing Alcott’s century-old text with a 90s attitude & inflection.

Greta Gerwig’s more recent, currently Oscar-nominated take on Little Women was much more stylistically aggressive in its attempts to modernize Alcott’s novel. At the very least, it doesn’t rely entirely on the 2010s indie darlings of its cast (Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet) to do all of its heavy lifting in refreshing the material. Instead, Gerwig violently shakes the story loose from the page – assuming that audiences are familiar enough with the source material to appreciate it scrambled out of sequence. In her version, the audience is informed up-front that Jo turned down the well-off heartthrob next door, essentially stripping the story of its will-they/won’t-they drama to push through to other concerns. Instead of following a linear retelling of the entire novel, we watch an adult Jo from the second volume reflect on childhood memories from the first. Meanwhile, debates between Jo and her publisher in New York City prompt metatextual speculations on how, exactly, Little Women relates to Louisa May Alcott’s actual life and what biographical events may have been altered to please her own Male publishers’ demands – forever reshaping how the original text will be interpreted for the screen in the future. In many ways, this recent adaptation of Little Women is about the very act of adapting Little Women – a much headier, more exclusively cinematic approach to the material than the versions that preceded it.

The major narrative innovation of Gerwig’s take on this story is in how it makes the adult half of Jo’s story more compelling by drawing direct parallels to the childhood half. The most iconic, memorable episodes of Little Women tend to fall in its first volume, which captures an enduring portrait of girlhood that allows the work to resonate & reverberate from generation to generation. Centering this adaptation on the adult end of the book is a bold choice, then, but it unlocks a lot of the untapped power of that second half by making direct in-the-moment connections to events from the first. As Jo returns home from New York City to care for a sister who’s taken ill, the familiar sights & personalities of her hometown trigger memories of the book’s most iconic childhood moments, revealing the power of the novel’s bifurcated structure. It also frees Gerwig to pick & choose what parts of the story she wants to emphasize thematically. Gerwig shifts the core story from focusing on Jo’s possible romance with her neighbor to instead exploring her combative relationship with her youngest, brattiest sister. Gerwig also searches for the border between truth & artifice in Alcott’s source material and interrogates how outside influences may have distorted the author’s original vision. While most adaptations lovingly stage Alcott’s exact narrative for the screen, Gerwig’s actively interprets it and its legacy.

There’s a brief image of young children playing pretend as pirates in the March sisters’ attic that flashes in the last minute or so of Gerwig’s Little Women that I cannot stop thinking about. After Jo’s debates with her publisher call into question what “really” happened in her story vs. what literary tastes of the time dictated should happen, I couldn’t help but puzzle over what that image was implying. Was it merely a memory from earlier in Jo’s childhood play than what the book or its resulting movies cover? Was it an implication of how Jo’s published memoir would influence the childhood play of her readers? Or was it a vision of How Things Really Were, as opposed to the distorted version of Jo’s memory that we had been watching the entire film? I don’t really want an Answer to this query. The more important thing is just appreciating how the film’s metatextual self-examination had my mind racing in its final minutes to the point where I got hung up on what, like, three seconds of footage “meant” within the larger story. I really liked how Gillian Armstrong updated Little Women for Generation X by handing the source material over to one of the era’s most distinct personalities (namely, Veronica Sawyer). This latest adaptation from Gerwig is far more adventurous in its own modernization efforts, though. There’s no single image in the 90s version of Little Women that incites personal interpretation or extrapolation the way Gerwig’s film does, which makes the newer film not only more modern but also more outright cinematic.

-Brandon Ledet

Little Women (2019)

I have never experienced the apparently widespread phenomenon of being in a theater full of people who applaud the end of a film (at least not in a regularly scheduled film, as it has been known to happen at Weird Wednesdays and Terror Tuesdays, or when the director is in attendance), but I got my first taste of this peculiarity yesterday when Little Women concluded. Perhaps it is because I rarely find myself viewing a period piece at 1:15 on a Saturday afternoon and thus am almost never the youngest person in an auditorium by 30 years. I did expect that this might be the case, and I’ve certainly been in my fair share of screenings in which someone fell asleep, but this was definitely the first time I could hear someone snoring during the trailers (the same poor soul likewise dozed off again about an hour in, judging by the identical sounds). This is not indicative of the quality of Greta Gerwig’s latest, however; this movie is fantastic.

It’s the Reconstruction era. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) has just sold a piece of writing to a newspaper in New York for $20, the same going rate as freelancers get in 2020, 150 years later, just in case there are any Boomers reading this and wondering why their grandchildren are so frustrated all the time. Elder sister Meg (Emma Watson) has married “a penniless tutor” and had twins, youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) learning painting and hoping to be courted by a man wealthy enough to support her and her family, including “indigent parents” Marmee (Laura Dern) and Father (Bob Odenkirk) March later in life. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who many years earlier caught Scarlet Fever from a poor family that the Marches look after, is largely too weak to leave her bed after developing a weak heart as a result. Seven years earlier, Father March was working as a volunteer for the Union Army while Marmee tried to keep the family together, all four girls as vivacious and full of life as one small band of people could be, full of dreams. When the misunderstood lonesome older neighbor Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) takes his orphaned nephew “Laurie” (Timothée Chalamet, or Timmy Chalchal as we call him around these parts) into his home, he becomes close friends with all of the girls, inspiring an unrequited love deep within the young Amy while only having eyes for the independent Jo. Back in the “present” (seven years later), Jo makes her way home to Concord upon learning that Beth’s condition has taken a turn for the worse, while Laurie and Amy reunite in Paris as the latter begins to believe that her artistic talent is workmanlike and passionless in comparison to the pursuits and interests of her sisters.

This is a beautiful film, a timeless piece of literature made fresh once more with a cast overbrimming with talent (minus one odd casting choice, which I’ll get to momentarily) and filmed with an eye for chromatic storytelling and such beautiful Northeast scenery that when I tell you I was there, I was there. This is also such a talented cast that they breathe a new life into characters that, in the original text and in previous film incarnations, were at times sullen, unlikable, or intolerable. Aunt March in particular comes across quite well in this outing, with Streep infusing the role, one of a harsh spinster who condescends and proclaims a hardline fusion of morality and manners at her nieces (especially the recalcitrant Jo), with a mild comic edge that humanizes her. Her appearances are rare, but gone is the feeling of dread that her appearance could summon when reading the original novel, or in other adaptations. And it’s not the same old Miranda Priestly, either, but a new casual cruelty tempered by kindness.

Likewise, Pugh infuses Amy with a likability that can be absent in other versions, relying solely on the charisma of the actor to take the shallow, bratty, narcissistic monster who (spoiler alert for a novel that’s older than radio) in a particularly petulant moment burns her sister’s long-labored upon novel out of spite for not getting to go to the theater. That still happens in this version, and it is still treated as unforgivable, but Pugh’s elevated performance lends Amy’s childhood frivolity a lightness: when Jo cuts her hair in order to obtain money for Mother March to go the DC hospital where her husband is being treated, Pugh’s delivery of “Your one beauty!” is hilarious. Likewise, the recurring element of Amy being proud of her diminutive feet (“the best in the family”) is delightful, appearing first on the evening that she first meets Laurie as she proclaims that she would never twist her ankle while dancing as Meg had, and later when she decides to make him a plaster mold of said dainty feet so as to prevent Laurie from forgetting about them. Even her marriage, which for fifteen decades has been near universally read as the ultimate culmination of her childhood model of femininity, is presented here as the result of an awareness of the necessity of sacrifice as much as it is an unearned reward for her behavior. “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life,” Jo says at one point, and while she’s right, there comes a time when youngest March girl woman steps up and takes responsibility where her sisters can’t or won’t.

Of course, Jo is the star, and Ronan plays her with aplomb, but the internet will soon be full of gushing pieces that are better written than mine about her newest star turn. The only truly miscast part here is Odenkirk as Father March. I may be dating myself here, but the equation “Bob Odenkirk + period piece + sideburns” will always have the sum “A new Mr. Show sketch is starting!” to me, and there’s no way around that. When Father March comes back from DC after his recovery, there’s no way that your first thought isn’t that we’re about to hear about megaphone crooner Dickie Crickets or The Story of the Story of Everest (which you either love or hate). It’s not enough to bring the movie to a halt, but if you start laughing, you may get accusing stares from the elderly.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Director Wes Anderson has such a meticulously curated aesthetic that his work is almost polarizing by design. As his career has developed over the decades, long outlasting the wave of “twee” media it partly inspired, he’s only more fully committed himself to the fussed-over dollhouse preciousness of his manicured visual style. That can be a huge turnoff for audiences who prefer a messier, grimier view of the world that accepts chaos & spontaneity as an essential part of filmmaking. Personally, I can’t help but be enraptured with Anderson’s films, as if my adoration of his work were a biological impulse. Like the way house cats host parasites that fool pet owners into caring for them, it’s as if Wes Anderson has nefariously wired my brain to be wholly onboard with his artistic output. It’s a gradual poisoning of my critical thinking skills that stretches back to my high school years, when his films Rushmore & The Royal Tenenbaums first established him as a (divisive) indie cinema icon. Anderson’s latest work, Isle of Dogs, only makes his supervillain-level command over my critical mind even more powerful by directly pandering directly to things I personally love. A stop-motion animated sci-fi feature about doggos who run wild on a dystopian pile of literal garbage, the basic elevator pitch for Isle of Dogs already sounds like a Mad Libs-style grab bag of the exact bullshit I love to see projected on the big screen, even without Wes Anderson’s name attached. As he already demonstrated with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director’s twee-flavored meticulousness also has a wider appeal when seen in the context of stop-motion, which generally requires a level of whimsy, melancholy, and visual fussiness to be pulled off well. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Isle of Dogs is so flawed on such a fundamental, conceptual level and that I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy it anyway, despite my better judgment.

Set decades into the future in a dystopian Japan, Isle of Dogs details the samurai epic-style adventure of a young boy attempting to rescue his dog from an evil, corrupt government (helmed by his own uncle). All dogs in his region have been exiled to the pollution-saturated hell of Trash Island (which is exactly what it sounds like) amidst mass hysteria over a canine-specific virus, “snout fever.” The story is split between two efforts: a search & rescue mission involving the boy & a gang of talking Trash Island dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, etc.) and a much less compelling political intrigue narrative in which an American foreign exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) attempts to expose the government’s villainous deeds. As an American outsider himself, Wes Anderson is at times contextually positioned in the POV of both the Trash Island Dogs and the foreign exchange student, the only consequential English-speaking characters in the film (a large portion of the dialogue is unsubtitled Japanese). In his worst impulses, Anderson is like Gerwig’s foreign exchange student– an enthusiastic appreciator of Japanese culture who awkwardly inserts themselves into conversations where they don’t belong, wrongfully feeling entitled to authority on a subject that is not theirs to claim. From a more generous perspective, Anderson is like one of the American-coded trash dogs– compelled to honor & bolster Japanese art from a place of humbled servitude, even though he doesn’t quite speak the language (either culturally or literally). By choosing to set an English language story in a fictional Japanese future, Wes Anderson has invited intense scrutiny that often overpowers Isle of Dogs’s ambitious sci-fi themes, talking-dog adorability, and visually stunning artwork. This is especially true in Gerwig’s (admittedly minor) portion of the plot, which sticks out like a sore thumb as one of the film’s more conceptually flawed impulses. For a work so visually masterful & emotionally deft, it’s frustrating that it seemingly wasn’t at all self-aware of its own cultural politics.

There are much better-equipped critics who’ve more thoughtfully & extensively tackled the nuanced ways Isle of Dogs has failed to fully justify its Japanese culture-gazing: Inkoo Kang, Justin Chang, Emily Yoshida, Alison Willmore, to name a few. As a white American, it’s not my place to declare whether this gray area issue makes the film worthy of vitriol or just cautions consideration. I could maybe push back slightly on the cultural appropriation claims that say there’s no reason the story had to be framed in Japan and that Anderson only chose that setting for its visual aesthetic. Like Kubo & The Two Strings’s philosophical relationship with the finality of death (or lack thereof), Isle of Dogs engages with themes of honor and ancestry that feel very specific to its Japanese setting (even if not at a fully satisfying depth). Truth be told, though, I likely would have enjoyed the film even without that thematic justification. Unless Isle of Dogs is your very first exposure to the director’s work, you’ve likely already formed a relationship with Wes Anderson as an artist, whether positive or negative. It’s a relationship that can only be reinforced as the director doubles down with each project, sinking even deeper into his own particular quirks. I assumed with Moonrise Kingdom that no film could have possibly gotten more Wes Andersony. Its follow-up, Grand Budapest Hotel, immediately proved that assumption wrong. While Isle of Dogs stacks up nicely to either of those films in terms of visual achievements, its own doubling-down on the Wes Anderson aesthetic is tied to the director’s long history of blissful ignorance in approaching POC cultures (most notably before in The Darjeeling Limited). It does so by submerging itself in a foreign culture entirely without fully engaging with the implications of that choice. As a longtime Anderson devotee in the face of this doubling-down, I’m going to have to reconcile my love of his films with the fact that this exact limitation has always been a part of them, that I’ve willfully overlooked it in my appreciation of what he achieves visually, emotionally, and comedically elsewhere. Isle of Dogs is a gorgeous work of visual art and a very distinct approach to dystopian sci-fi. It’s a great film, but also a culturally oblivious one. The conversation around that internal conflict is just as vital as any praise for its technical achievements.

-Brandon Ledet

Lady Bird (2017)

Greta Gerwig’s debut feature as a writer-director (after several notable collaborations with eternal sourpuss Noah Baumbach) has quickly become something of a smash hit, even though it’s only screening in a few hundred theaters in its initial, slowly expanding release. Lady Bird currently has the highest per-theater average attendance for any film in 2017, which is remarkable for a work so formally & tonally unassuming. Essentially telling the story of a deeply flawed teen brat navigating her own newly-forming identity & impulses towards selfishness over the course of a single year, there isn’t much on the surface of Lady Bird that would suggest why it’s being watched & rewatched with such veracity and topping so many early drafts of Best of the Year lists. It’s when you get into the details of the picture that its resonation & mass appeal makes more sense. Having graduated from a Catholic high school my parents could barely afford in the early 00s, I felt as if the picture were made specifically for me. Growing up in Sacramento, California before moving away to the opposite end of the country at a young age, the person I watched the movie with more or less felt the same: Lady Bird was made specifically for them. I’ve been reading similar accounts in many of the film’s early, elated reviews as well. Obviously, not every single person who watches the picture is going to be able to personally relate to its characters & setting in that way, but Gerwig packs the picture with enough meticulously distinctive details that when you see a familiar location or sign of financial struggle or complicated relationship that reflects something in your own life, you’ll feel as if she made a film for you alone and no one else. I have to assume that personal recognition of individual details has to directly affect its apparent universality, as self-contradictory as that may sound.

Saoirse Ronan stars as a disenchanted high school senior “with a performative streak” who dreams of moving far away from her suburban home town of Sacramento as soon as she graduates. Like in many coming of age stories told in that framework, she mostly struggles with her self-identity and what horrors or pleasures her future might hold. She gives herself the alias “Lady Bird” as a pretentious expression of independence. She daydreams along with her theater kid peers of futures in romantic locales like Paris & New York. Her reality is much more limited than that fantasy suggests, a conflict that weighs heaviest on her relationship with her mother, an overworked psychiatric nurse played by Laurie Metcalf. Lady Bird rebels unnecessarily against many people & institutions who don’t deserve it: caring nuns, her best friend, her older brother, Sacramento as a concept. None are as giving or as frustrated with her as her mother, though, and the movie is just as much about the intricacies of their uneasy bond as it is about Lady Bird learning empathy & autonomy. The way they can argue bitterly about how money & class affect their status in the community in one breath and mutually break down over an audiobook in the next feels true to life, so it’s rewarding that there are no easy solutions or revelations within their dynamic as the movie wraps up its year-in-the-life plot. Lady Bird barrels through her final year under her mother’s & her Catholic high school’s roofs, hurting everyone in her path to escape like the clumsy teenage monster that she is (and we all were). Sometimes these wounds can be repaired. Sometimes the relationships remain fractured, but endure anyway. Mostly, Lady Bird dares to test every boundary she’s fenced within and (hopefully) learns who she is as a newly-formed person in the process of making many, many mistakes.

It’s initially difficult to pinpoint exactly what distinguishes Lady Bird as a high school comedy and Gerwig as a filmmaker, considering how many times this narrative has been told before. The recent coming of age sleeper The Edge of Seventeen already re-invigorated the high school teen comedy by being honest about how unlikable & flawed most people are at that age. There’s also major echoes of works like Rushmore & Ghost World that were actually released when Lady Bird was set in the early 00s (although with significantly cooler soundtracks; Lady Bird has a much worse taste in music than Enid or Max Fischer, hilariously so). Not all of Gerwig’s strengths as a filmmaker result from the intimate specificity of her writing, however. What’s most formally impressive about Lady Bird is not necessarily that it captures so many intimately specific moments of early 00s teen rites of passage (getting stoned & microwaving junk food to third wave ska, awkwardly slow dancing to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony at a high school dance, ungodly awful theater auditions/exercises, etc.), but that they hit the screen so rapidly & with such confidence. Lady Bird is a feat in editing room craft, summarizing an entire, pivotal year in its protagonist’s life through deftly-detailed montage. The movie is resonating personally with so many individual audience members because it is so tightly packed with isolated images & exchanges in an onslaught of free flowing montages. The way time passes in these stretches plays both as a laugh-a-minute comedy and an emotionally devastating drama, especially when moments are unexpectedly cut short or drastically extended for emphasis. In one of the film’s more defining exchanges, Lady Bird pleads with her mother to break her angry silence in what feels like a scene pulled from a harshly acidic stage play, but is caught between two much lighter, brighter sequences of small-scale triumph. Lady Bird’s editing techniques are deceptively simplistic, but immensely impactful in summarizing an entire year in a life not yet fully-defined.

It’s by no means one of the flashier filmmaking feats of the year, but there’s a pretty solid chance that something (if not everything) in Lady Bird will resonate with you on a personal level. Although a massive number of people respond to the picture by insisting Gerwig made it specifically for them, they can’t all be wrong. She’s speaking to her audience on a distinctively personal level, especially on issues of teen identity exploration and familial struggles with selfishness & class. The rapid fire editing and believably genuine performances from Ronan & Metcalf only serve to drive that vision home and make room for a memorable, personalized emotional response. Lady Bird initially appears to be a continuation of a well-worn type of story we’ve all seen before, but once you’re immersed in its defining details, there’s something remarkably individualistic about it that worms its way into whatever’s left of your frustrated teenage heart.

-Brandon Ledet

20th Century Women (2016)

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“How do you be a good man? What does that even mean nowadays?”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finer example of why critical Best of the Year lists are absolute bullshit (due to the arbitrary wackiness of release dates) than 20th Century Women. From an official standpoint, Mike Mills’s latest (and greatest) has a December 28, 2016 release date thanks to its limited release screenings in major cities like New York & Los Angeles. It took nearly a month for the film to expand its distribution wide enough to reach cities like New Orleans, though. These Oscar-minded, slow trickle releases usually mean that modest little pleb film bloggers like myself, who don’t have the luxury of festival circuit browsing & For Your Consideration advance screeners, miss a lot of major Best of the Year contenders until weeks after their year-end roundups are published & etched into digital stone. So let me announce right here & now that my personal Top Films of 2016 list is a total sham, a shameful fraud. No disrespect meant to my beloved The Neon Demon, but its crown is made of the flimsiest fool’s gold. The best film of 2016 is, in fact, 20th Century Women.

Just about the last thing I expected when I bought a ticket to this immaculate, miraculous picture was a reach-for-the-fences ambition in narrative structure & visual craft. The advertising leading up to its release did an exceptional job of highlighting its function as an actors’ showcase for its holy trio of talented women: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning. The movie certainly does not disappoint there and I guess on some level it does function as the kind of insular Awards Season drama about alternative family structures & eternally hurt feelings you might expect based on the trailers. That’s only a fraction of the territory writer-director Mike Mills covers here, though. Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a “good” man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never “got.” Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.

It would be incredibly easy to reduce the plot of this semi-autobiographical work down to a sentence or two. Annette Bening stars as a dream mom, an incredibly intelligent & self-confident woman who had her only child at the age of 40. Concerned that she’s not fully equipped to alone raise her son to be a “good” man, she enlists the tenants of her home (played by Billy Crudup & Greta Gerwig) and the boy’s best friend/biggest crush (Elle Fanning) to raise him as a village, the way a commune would, a plan cited to be inspired by her own communal upbringing during the Great Depression. This coming of age narrative could feel painfully over-familiar, even within the hyper-specific context of its late 70s West Coast punk scene setting, especially since the assumed POV of the narrative would center on the 15 year old boy everyone’s helping “raise.” Mills’s narrative structure is far too non-linear for the story to play as Oscar season convention, though (a fact backed up by the film only earning a single nomination, one for Best Original Screenplay). 20th Century Women engages in an internal tug of war between over-explaining & withholding information. It will introduce a character’s persona by telling their entire life’s story from birth to death in the length of a paragraph, only to double back to fill in the details & color between those lines. It will continually threaten to slip into time-spanning montage, only for the in-the-moment immediacy of a specific image to crash to the surface. It will threaten heartbreaking moments of devastating melodrama only to reveal that life is more often defined by smaller, less obviously significant events & conversations. The film almost plays like a feature-length trailer, but without the lack of depth that descriptor implies. It’s cliché to say so, but 20th Century Women is pure cinema, the art of the moving image; and it confidently, abstractly allows its medium to dictate its narrative in a way that a simple, reductive plot synopsis cannot convey. It’s in so many ways more than a sum of its parts.

A large portion of my rapturous appreciation of this film is undeniably hinged on the way it plays directly into my personal pop culture obsessions. The very first needle drop sound cue (a literal needle drop thanks to Greta Gerwig’s young punk tenant character) is my favorite early-career Talking Heads song, “Don’t Worry About the Government.” From there it takes the time to explore punk culture as a philosophy and an ethos, not just name-dropping niche artists like The Raincoats for cool points, but verbalizing what makes their DIY aesthetic life-affirming & interesting to the ear. It explains how the scene can be paradoxically empowering through a sense of community among outsiders and alienating in its bitter, insular rivalries that arise from things as petty as who’s slept with whom and what bands people associate with as a personal philosophy. The movie also indulges in the beauty of its own imagery the way only cinema can, often functioning as an Instagram or Tumblr account in motion. From its opening shots of calm ocean waves & symmetrically framed car fires to its slideshow photographs of punk scene portraits, outer space imagery, and common objects like cigarette packs & birth control pills isolated in an art studio void, 20th Century Women never shies away from the simple pleasure of a well-constructed image, but always finds a way to make each indulgence thematically significant. Its structure is explained in-film through easy metaphors like a mixtape or a self-portrait series made through photographs of possessions (which is described as “beautiful, but a little sad”), but I think those reference points sell short its command of “movie magic.” Each stylistic choice is a natural extension of its 1979 setting, but feels as if it were speaking to me directly on a much deeper level than pure aesthetic.

It’s a shame I didn’t see 20th Century Women in time to properly cite it as my favorite 2016 release. It’s also a shame that Annette Bening didn’t earn any Academy Awards attention for her deeply endearing role as the film’s matriarch. At the very least, her lines like, “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to bring depressed,” and “Don’t kiss a woman unless you know what you mean by it,” would’ve made great fodder for an awards show highlight reel. No matter. Long after these end of the year roundups are long forgotten, this film will still be its wonderful, perfect self. Mike Mills has delivered a timeless, masterfully beautiful triumph of humanist filmmaking and no arbitrary release dates or Oscars snubs can delegitimize that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

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fourstar

There’s an alternate universe where Noah Baumbach’s films, with their manicured Wes Anderson visual palette and ensemble casts of talented actors both early & late in their respective careers, are a populist hit. In the universe we do live in, however, Baumbach’s films are more consistent crowd-splitters. Titles like The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young, and Mistress America look like cutesy indie dramas from the outside, but harbor a strong, corrosive hatred for their own characters, revealing Baumbach to be much more of a misanthrope than he appears to be. The recent comedy Maggie’s Plan is an interesting window into this alternate timeline where Noah Baumbach’s works are actually the smart, breezy farces they’re advertised to be instead of comedic exercises in pitch black misanthropy (which I also enjoy just fine). Starring & directed by Baumbach collaborators (Greta Gerwig & Rebecca Miller, daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller), Maggie’s Plan is not at all a cutesy indie trifle. It still pokes fun at its characters and indulges in morally & emotionally uncomfortable romantic scenarios. It just does so without tail-spinning its audience into frustrated hatred of every personality presented onscreen. The film is much more interested in the complicated plots of Old Hollywood farces and the general quirks of human folly than tearing down the self-absorption & self-destructive ego of modern ennui. I can’t say it’s exactly a better film for it, but it’s certainly a kinder & more enjoyable one.

Greta Gerwig stars as a young East Coast Academic who wants to become a mother under her own terms, a plan that involves a sperm donation from a crazy-eyed hipster who’s made a career for himself as a “pickle entrepreneur” (just about the most Brooklyn thing I’ve ever heard of). The plot is disrupted when Gerwig’s protagonist falls passionately in love with another East Coast Academic™, played by Ethan Hawke, (whom I somehow confused for Kevin Bacon for the opening few scenes). The problem is that he happens to be a married man. The dangerous sensation of this blossoming affair combines with several possible love triangle plots to threaten an eyeroll-worthy romcom yarn, but Maggie’s Plan is much smarter than anything I feared it might become. Instead of the complications of single mother pregnancy and the moral dilemmas presented by romantic jealousy, the movie tackles the ways love & desire are messy, with outcomes that cannot be controlled and the way romantic partners, especially men, can take their significant others for granted, treating them almost like an employee without giving it any thought. There’s no will-they-won’t-they series of missed connections and tangled misunderstandings here. Miller’s farce is much more about the way characters uncomfortable with loosening control over their messy personal lives have to learn to let go and let life happen naturally than it is about who they’ll be sleeping with by the time the credits roll.

Movies with this intimate of a narrative & limited visual scope obviously rely heavily on the strength of their cast to sell their charms and Maggie’s Plan is overloaded with talent. Gerwig does her usual thing, but with a much more endearing spin on her characters’ total lack of self-awareness. Hawke is perfectly cast as the smartest idiot in the room. They’re backed up by a long list of excellent bit players & single scene cameos: Bill Harder, Maya Rudolph, Wallace Shawn, Kathleen Hanna. And that’s not even mentioning Julianne Moore, who very nearly steals the show in an absurd caricature of European academic coldness. Of course, none of this talent would mean a thing without Miller’s superbly constructed script, which manages to feel intelligently assembled & well-considered in every moment while still working in punchlines as inane as “I don’t want you to have a baby with the pickle man.” There are a couple stray choices that make Maggie’s Plan feel distinct even as a small budget indie, including a time jump that completely upends its initial plot trajectory & a surprise over-abundance of 60s dancehall reggae on its soundtrack. It’s the cast Miller assembles and the ways her script arranges those chess pieces to craft a newfangled version of an Old Hollywood farce that makes the film worth a recommendation, though. It’s all intricately plotted stuff made to somehow feel like effortless charm.

It’s probably not at all fair of me to conjure Noah Baumbach’s name in this review, as Rebecca Miller has had a long, self-driven career long before recently joining forces with that divisive filmmaker. It’s likely that Gerwig’s presence is a lot of what recalls his work here. I really do think that anyone on the verge of liking Baumbach who finds his general misanthropy difficult to stomach would likely enjoy Maggie’s Plan, though. It’s just reminiscent enough of his storytelling style to draw the comparison, but so distinctly on its own wavelength that it won’t feel like an empty exercise for those who devotedly follow his career. I’m now curious myself to double back and watch some of Miller’s previous works to see if this is a vibe she’s always worked within. Maggie’s Plan at the very least proves her capable of turning small, familiar parts into memorably distinct, endearing pictures. It’s a lot rarer than it sounds.

-Brandon Ledet

Mistress America (2015)

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fourstar

Noah Baumbach is extremely adept at making me feel like shit. While from the outside his signature films The Squid & The Whale, Margot at the Wedding, etc. may look like the kind of cutesy indie dramas that often earn the quaint moniker “Sundance darlings”, they actually pack much more of a devastating emotional punch than you’d first expect. Baumbach’s parade of broken, often vile characters truly get under my skin, mostly because they’re so real & so relatable. What’s even worse is they have the nerve to make me laugh at the same time, despite myself. Even if I don’t personally identify with the moral reprobates Baumbach brings to the big screen, I can at least recognize their traits in real life people that stalk this cursed Earth, often people I love or at least find amusing. For instance, the deeply unpleasant film Greenberg hosts a lead performance from Ben Stiller so heartlessly misanthropic & cruelly self-centered that I left the film shaking so thoroughly with anger that I couldn’t help feeling as if part of my discomfort was that I recognized aspects of his destructive behavior in people I know intimately or, shudder to think, myself at my worst. It was so tempting to reduce my reaction to Greenberg to “Fuck that movie!” but at the same time it was near impossible to ignore that it had struck a chord, unpleasant or not. In a lot of ways, Baumbach’s latest film Mistress America is the spiritual opposite of Greenberg, yet both films somehow strike that dark, too-close-to-home chord of discomfort.

Mistress America, which Baumbach co-wrote with actress Greta Gerwig (who portrays the titular human anomaly Brooke), strikes a funny, but acidly damning portrait of Millennial pretentiousness. Brooke is anything & nothing simultaneously. She’s a creative spirit with no follow-through to finish any of the many projects she conceives. She drifts in & out of people’s lives without ever emotionally engaging with them in any specific way, leaving behind a trail of destruction that she is far too self-absorbed to even notice. She constantly rags on “rich people”, but obviously coasts on a certain level of privilege she won’t acknowledge. Brooke tries to be everything to everyone, even going as far as adopting different costumes (sometimes on an hourly schedule) depending on the task at hand: pencil skirts for business meetings, workout gear for the health nut part of her day, non-prescription glasses & sweaters for tutoring sessions, etc. While tutoring a math student she’s shown describing the nature of “x” as a variable that “can’t be nailed down”, which is very much on the nose. However, when she later describes herself as “kind & fearless”, she’s completely off the mark. Brooke may think she knows every last thing about how the world works, but the truth is she doesn’t even know the first thing about herself.

At the same time, though, her boundless energy & roaring self-confidence can be intoxicating, especially to a young admirer. Brooke’s soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (played by Lola Kirke) is mildly critical of, but completely starstruck by Brooke, who is, by all means, an impossible person (the kind that lives in Times Square & spontaneously gets invited onstage at concerts). Alone on a college campus in New York City, Tracy is an emotionally vulnerable freshmen who is looking for a sense of self-purpose & personal identity. Tracy yearns to be a pretentious literary type, but just doesn’t have the heart for it. In Brooke she sees the unbridled moxie she wishes she possessed herself. As she fawns over & begins to imitate Brooke, the film gets similarly excited, picking up speed in a delirious manner & getting drunk on self-awarded power. However, Brooke’s modern day Holly Golightly lifestyle is not nearly as glamorous as it may seem on the surface & Tracy quickly discovers that her hero is a broken, selfish narcissist not so gracefully transitioning from the twilight of her frivolous 20s into a much less flattering frivolous adulthood.

In a lot of ways Brooke is more of a collection of empty platitudes & thinly veiled attempts to be quotable than a real person. While casually posing for a friend’s Instagram photo she asks, “Must we document ourselves all the time? Must we?!” When Tracy explains she wants to be a stort story writer, Brooke responds “I read that TV shows are the new novel.” Other self-generated clichés include “You can’t really know what it is to want until you are at least 30,” & “There’s no adultery when you’re 18. You should all be touching each other all the time.” She’s also prone to introducing herself to new friends with the account that “I watched my mother die […] Everyone I love dies,” a personal catchphrase that feels all the more disquieting because she sounds like she doesn’t mean one word of it. It’s no wonder that Brooke is so proficient at Twitter fame, schmoozing businessmen, and coaching a spin class. Her vapid phrasings can be downright inspirational at times . . . as long as you don’t pay attention to what she’s actually saying.

It’s possible that not everyone will engage with Brooke in the same adversary way that I did. Like Tracy (who Brooke deems “Baby Tracy”) it’s feasible that some audiences could fall for her surface charms. It seems like no mistake to me, though, that the more Tracy imitates Brooke, the less unique & likable she becomes as a protagonist. In a lot of ways her newfound confidence turns her into an insufferable jerk & a bully. Also amplifying this feeling is the vibrant 80s synth soundtrack, which always feels like it’s building to a significant breakthrough moment that it never actually reaches. In so many ways, this echoes Brooke’s entire, vapid existence. She thinks that she’s the star of the show (and life is certainly nothing if not a staged production in her case), but she’s actually the butt of its cruel joke.

Mistress America pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing that fragile emptiness behind Brooke’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I façade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like Tracy, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad. Brooke is the kind of person you’d love to talk to at a party & someone you could have a general sense of concern about, but not a presence you’d want to connect with on any intimate level. She’s far too fleeting & brutally egotistical for that & Mistress America has an emotional bodycount to prove it. Like with a lot of Baumbach’s work, it’s the kind of film that makes you feel truly awful for laughing, a conflicting sensation I personally enjoy very much.

-Brandon Ledet