Oscar missed a bet when he overlooked Annette Bening’s performance in 20th Century Women. Golden Globes made up for it by nominating her for best actress.
I’m fascinated by film and have been, ever since the olden days. When I was seven, we made a “family of origin” trek to my birthplace, St. Paul, Minnesota, where my cousins took me to the movies and popcorn on Saturday afternoons. I dreaded the scary “Grade B” movies. In one, a tree fell on a woman during a hurricane and I had nightmares for years.
Hubby and I continue the weekly movie tradition on our Thursday evening “date nights.” We avoid horror, gratuitous violence or dystopian visions. If film’s not our “cuppa,” the popcorn really helps.
I was delighted by the film, 20th Century Women. Golden Globes endeared themselves by nominating director Mike Mills for best screenplay. I read that Mike, in an attempt to understand his late mother better, wrote and directed a film about her. Her character, Dorothea, artfully portrayed by Bening, struck a chord with me.
As we are told right away, the story takes place in 1979 and follows the challenges Dorothea faces as a single mom, raising her son, fourteen- year-old Jamie, (one reviewer cogently notes that Jamie is raising her, too). Dorothea says, wistfully, “I know him less every day.”
Those words ring true today and might be uttered from the lips of many parents as they watch their young teens ,fourteen and fifteen, emerge and grow up. Sometimes I feel that way about my grandson, when I see he’s grown a foot and a mustache since the last time I saw him-or I don’t recognize his guy’s low, throaty voice on a cell phone call. Just in time, I realize it’s my grandson, imitating Sylvester Stallone.
Dorothea’s approach to solving her struggles in raising Jamie is truly novel, yet it seems typical of the late 70s and early 80s.
Instead of trying to find a “replacement-father figure” for Jamie, Dorothea calls upon two savvy, younger generation women. As so well described in Variety Editions, Jamie is “groomed and nurtured by the eruption of contemporary femininity around him.” (Owen Gleiberman, 10/7/16)
One of the women Dorothea chooses is Abbie, a 24-year-old art student and photographer, with a Bowie-like shock of red hair, who’s recovering from cervical cancer. Under Abbie’s initiation, Jamie learns about the female psyche and reads about the nature of their orgasms. His required reading is the eye-opening classic, Our Bodies, Ourselves. Abbie seals the deal when she introduces Jamie to the nightclub scene, tutoring him on how to approach women.
What I found most remarkable about Dorothea was her determination to advocate for Jamie. I found myself comparing her to the leading women in my collection of short stories. I did a brain check through those characters and decided Rachel in “The Replacement Child” was most like Dorothea.
In some ways, Rachel and Dorothea are soul sisters. Both care deeply about their children and are willing go to bat for them. Dorothea colludes with Jamie, by making up, typing and signing fake written excuses for him so he can safely play hooky from school.
Rachel defends her son, too. Concerned that his conferred label of ADHD will stigmatize him, she shocks teachers when she attends ‘meet the teacher’night and asks why they don’t call it “What’s Wrong with Your Child?” night.
Rachel reaches out and tries to help Lucy, the daughter of a good friend, Betty. Rachel develops a strong bond with Lucy but has concerns about Betty’s parenting and Lucy’s path. When she tries to express her concerns, Rachel feels self-conscious and guarded. She finds herself on tiptoe, fearful of losing Betty and unable to risk saying what she really thinks.
Rachel could borrow a page from Dorothea’s 20th century playbook. Instead, she watches helplessly as Betty’s beautiful daughter self-destructs. In the end, Rachel overcomes her fears and is able to express herself openly to Betty.
Rachel has grown in her journey. Yet, she will always wonder if she could’ve saved Lucy. If only she’d spoken out sooner.