A United Kingdom (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

 On every side the wicked prowl…
as vileness is exalted among humankind.

Psalm 12:1-2, 8

Famly

Seretse & Ruth Khama (with their daughter) stand against racism & colonialism in this powerful film. (c) Fox Searchlight Presents

Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s exquisite film is based on Susan Williams’ well-received 2007 book Color Bar. It seems remarkable to me that this story of an interracial love story should come out upon the heels of Loving. Asante’s film is about an international romance, whereas the latter is a domestic one in this country, but each had widespread repercussions. The state of Virginia’s attempt to destroy the Lovings’ marriage led to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down miscegenation laws. A United Kingdom had an international impact. When the British government, appeasing South Africa’s apartheid government, tried to prevent Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the latter a London office worker, from marrying, there was an uproar in both England and Africa. The film’s title is a cleverer one than the book’s in that it makes us think of Ruth Williams’ home country, while at the same time taking on an ironic twist, in that the fierce debate over the interracial marriage threatened to make Seretse’s homeland, the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, anything but united.

Seretse Khama is descended from a long line of Bechuanaland chiefs who bore the title of king. He has been in England to study law while his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) serves as regent. In 1947 in London at a church-sponsored dance he meets Ruth, they discover they have a love for jazz and dancing, and after a whirlwind romance, she accepts his proposal of marriage. One night on a street they learn depth of racism in England when several thugs attack them while they are out walking. British government representative Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) appears at Ruth’s office to warn her that their marriage is unacceptable to the government, and her father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) tells her he will refuse to see her if she goes through with her plans. The two are sobered by the opposition, but decide to go ahead anyway. From the Archbishop of Canterbury on down, the clergy are against the interracial marriage, so they pledge themselves to each other in a civil marriage. So much for the church boldly preaching God’s love for all of humanity!

In Africa, many of the crowd awaiting them in front of the family home welcome them, but the uncle sends Ruth into the house while he engages in a long talk with his nephew, the substance being that he refuses to accept a white woman as their queen. Inside, Seretse’s aunt and sister serve Ruth with refreshments, but treat her coldly. Saying that a queen must be of and know her people, they charge that her marriage is demeaning to the women of their country.

The native tribal council accepts the marriage, to the chagrin of the local British officials and Uncle Tshekedi, who states that he will no longer accept Seretse as the future king. The couple are ordered to return to England so that they can deal in person with the government, but Seretse, seeing this as a plan that would prevent Ruth from returning to the country, convinces her she must stay behind.

We then follow them as they live apart, Ruth, after suffering an illness, slowly winning over her sister-in-law and others by her genuine interest in the welfare of the impoverished people. In London, Seretse faces the duplicity and racism of various government officials, even Winston Churchill, although we never see this iconic politician. We do see Clement Atlee, who appears bent on placating the new racist South African government that in 1950 is setting up its apartheid system, he also joining in on the plot to discredit and keep Seretse from returning to his country.  Told at first that he is exiled for five years, when Churchill returns to power, the new P.M. bans him for life, despite having claimed during the election process that he favored lifting the ban.

The courage and love of the two lovers is put to the test by all this opposition, with Seretse prevented from being present when Ruth births their first child, a daughter. Just what a plucky woman this former office typist is we see when she has to drive herself to the hospital. Earlier she had refused “the best doctor in Africa” because it would have meant traveling to South Africa.

The filmmakers probably turn the government officials into stereotypes, much as some American filmmakers have done with Southern “rednecks.” Many of the issues and history also have been simplified, but the film is not meant to be a documentary. It is a story, and all the better because it is basically a true one. The intrigue involving a mining company searching for diamonds is especially shortened, though it is made clear that the Brits would have loved to be able to claim the rights to the minerals by changing the status of Bechuanaland from a protectorate to a colony, hence their scheming to prevent Seretse from gaining power.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are well suited to their roles as the embattled couple bound by a love so strong that they will take on the world to maintain their bond. Quiet and unassuming in private, he becomes passionate when he addresses his people, telling him that he loves and wants to serve them, but that he also loves his wife and must have her by his side. Ms. Pike has us rooting for her as she moves from the ordinary life of a London typist, willing to lose her family for the sake of love and move to a totally unfamiliar land, where she is regarded by both the white colonials and most of the black population as an interloper.

The audience loved the Gandhian scene in Africa when the colonial officials have called for a mass meeting of the people to hear the terms of the new order they will live under. The camera shows us the officials, their wives, and the military brass all gathered on the platform. Then it is revealed that the field in front of them is empty. By now most of the people have accepted Ruth and the position of her husband, so they refuse to show up. Later on, the impasse between Seretse and his uncle is resolved in a very creative way, the scene of their reconciliation being a moving moment in the film. What an enchanting true story of the power of love and courage standing against racism and colonial oppression. Even more so when the end notes inform us that Seretse, after renouncing his claim to the crown, was elected president of the new nation of Botswana—and that he did not succumb, as far too many other African leaders did, to the lure of power and wealth.

Note: If you enjoyed this film, you will also want to see Ms. Amma Asante’s other film reviewed on this site, Belle, about a mixed-race woman in 18th century. Also, for more about Botswana see History Today’s50 Years of Botswana.

This review with a set of questions will be in the March 2017 issue of VP.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 2

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.

Psalm 14:3

JW2__D9A1703.cr2

Our hit man in one of a seemingly endless series of fights. (c) Summit Entertainment

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is one of those persons we are supposed to root for, much like James Bond, except John is not “licensed to kill.” But that doesn’t matter, nor does it stay his shooting hand, almost every one of his shots taking out one of the gun toting thugs attacking him. It is criminal that both his Russian enemies and Italian master criminal Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) apparently have neglected to train their henchmen to shoot straight, apparently thinking that arming them with big rapid-firing guns would make up for their poor marksmanship. They never hit their intended target—they just knock chunks out of walls and pillars. It’s an example of Quality vs. Quantity. Wick, even while running, or even diving through the air, almost always hits his man. In addition to killing by gun, the former hit man, forced out of retirement by a debt he owes to D’Antonio, dispatches his opponents with his bare hands in numerous fights.

This is a film targeted at teenaged and young adult video game players who think violence is cool. (as do many of the reviewers I checked out). Wick is dispatched to Rome by D’Antonio to kill the sister who rules the underworld there so that he can assume her place. The best part of the film is the above and below ground scenery beautifully photographed. The underground setting is in an ancient catacomb where revelers eat, dance, and fornicate—and where there are lots of tunnels and pools that make the choreographed violence so enjoyable for those addicted to this kind of cinematic rubbish.

From a moral perspective, the only difference between Wick and the bad guys is that he owns a dog, one that has replaced the one that criminals killed in the first film, launching him on a vindictive rampage that reduced so greatly the number of Russian goons. The dog, as well as Wick, survives the carnage this time. I suppose there will be a sequel to this, and if invited to a free screening, I might attend—providing the scenery is as alluring. I just hope this is a trilogy, and not a series!

Don’t look for any questions for this time-killing flick.

 

I am Not Your Negro (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 33 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees,

and that write grievousness which they have prescribed;

To turn aside the needy from judgment,

and to take away the right from the poor of my people,

that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!

Isaiah 10:1-2 (KJV)

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Matthew 12:29-31

MalcKingBldwn

Malcolm X & MLK, Jr. were friends of James Baldwin.          (c) Magnolia Pictures

When I was in seminary early ministry James Baldwin through his provocative writings made a deep impression on me. Many times, I quoted his statement about being a black man in America meant being in a perpetual state of rage. His polemical The Fire Next Time I regarded as every bit of a God-sent prophecy as the denunciations of injustice hurled forth by Amos and Jeremiah. And now we see, thanks to this work by film-director prophet-Raoul Peck, that Baldwin’s words are as relevant today as they were a half century ago. Despite what the naïve Supreme Court justices thought when they ripped out the heart of the Civil Rights Act, racism is still almost as strong as it was when Jim Crow laws kept “Negroes” in their place. Racism has just gone underground, those still under its sway defending themselves by using the term “political correctness” against anyone who would call them out on their remarks and acts (usually disguised by code words and phrases such as “law and order).

The Haitian-born filmmaker in a way finishes a work that Baldwin was working on at the time of his death in 1987, Remember This House. He had completed just 30 pages and was hoping to visit the survivors of the three prophets he had cherished as friends, murdered between 1963 and 1967, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. As we see words addressed to his literary agent typed onto the screen, Baldwin wanted “these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did, and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives.”

The author’s text from his unfinished book are scattered throughout the film, read forcefully by Samuel L. Jackson. We hear Baldwin himself in numerous clips from his TV appearances and speeches on college campuses. All of these provide evidence of what an articulate and courageous observer he was, a true prophet willing to call out liberal whites, as well as rabid segregationists, on their shortcomings. Whites too often, Baldwin observed, thought racism to be an individual affair, conquered by converting the individual, when in reality it was systemic, embedded in our culture. The director also inserts archival photos and news clips from Civil Rights demonstrations and clips of his three friends, as well as photos and clips from ads demeaning to blacks, the latter including scenes from Hollywood films. None of the black screen characters, he says, acted like any black person he knew.

The film clips will be of special interest to VP readers. They go back to the silent era’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin­ and the Thirties era King Kong, Dance, Fool, Dance, and the Stepin Fetchit movies with their negative image of blacks. Films from later on include Imitation of Life, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and The Defiant Ones. Baldwin’s comments on the latter remind me of my surprise years ago, when I first read his report of the reaction to the film of the audience in Harlem (I think this was in The Fire Next time.). Like other whites, I saw the film, about a black and a white convict (played by Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis) escaping while still chained together, as an appeal to racial brotherhood because their hatred of each other slowly changes to mutual respect. Blacks saw it otherwise. The two convicts manage to break the chain that had bound them together. When Poitier’s character jumps aboard a slow-moving freight train, Curtis’ almost reaches the black’s outstretched hand, so he can be pulled aboard. Failing to do so, the black jumps off, now unwilling to abandon his friend. Baldwin approvingly reports that the black audience yelled, “Fool! Get back on the train!” The author points out that liberal depictions of black-white relations in film are attempts to get blacks to let whites off the hook and make them feel better without really facing up to the enormous damage that racism has inflicted on blacks—and on whites as well.

Early Hollywood’s negative view of blacks was carried over into print, a series of shameful magazine ads depicting blacks only in servant roles, adding a touch of color to the mostly B&W documentary. (Aunt Jemima was just one of many such servile characters.)

Just as traditional Christianity teaches the total depravity of humanity, Baldwin teaches the total depravity of American society because of the embedded racism in it. Indeed, he fled his native land to Paris so that he could experience for the first time a sense of freedom, but felt compelled to return to the U.S. when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. He says that he wanted to be a witness (and participant) to the struggle to change America, rather than watch if from afar.

Baldwin wrote as an outsider, pointing out that he was not Black Muslim, a Black Panther, nor a Christian –the latter, he says because the church did not practice the command to love the neighbor. He also might have added that the intense loathing of homosexuals of most of church leaders and members at the time also put him outside its pale. (There is just one mention of his homosexuality in the film, revealed in an excerpt from a report by the FBI that kept a watch on him because Hoover saw the writer as Communist endangering the security of America.)

Because of his repeatedly calling out the “moral apathy of American whites’, viewers might be reminded of Baldwin’s friend’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which Dr. King denounced his Southern white detractor’s, some of whom considered themselves liberal, and complained that he was pushing racial matters too hastily. By including scenes from Ferguson and recent police beatings and shootings (including Trayvon Martin’s murder), the director shows that the Black Lives Matter movement is very much needed.

This is truly a movie that matters, and should be seen and discussed along with another film that ought to dispel illusions that racism has been defeated, Ava DuVerna’s 13th. Some have called racism “America’s Original Sin.” When Jesus’s summary of the Law is read, it is apparent that it is indeed the church’s, given the long history of so many of its members’ complicity in the slave trade, slavery, and the maintenance of segregation. All religious leaders who believe that the Scriptures have relevance to current life should be calling this important film to their people’s attention!

In closing, I leave you with these Baldwin quotes to ponder:

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.”

Note: This director’s film Lumumba can also be found on this site.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.

 

Lumumba 2000)

Unrated.  Running time:1 hour 55 min.  

Our content rating: Violence 7; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Lumba

Haitian film director Raoul Peck became interested in the tragic fate of Patrice Lumumba in 1963 when his father sought refuge for the family from the Duvalier dictatorship by moving to the Congo. This was just two years after Lumumba’s murder, and for the next 25 years Peck lived in that troubled country, attending schools in Leopoldville, Brooklyn, NY, France, and then film school in Germany. After making several films and teaching film (he worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski and Agnieszka Holland while teaching in France), he returned to Haiti, where he became Minister of Culture in the government of Prime Minister Rosny Smarth after the restoration of democratic rule. However, turmoil overcame that government also, and he left the country to take up filmmaking again. Lumumba is not his first film about the Congo’s first prime minister—in 1992 he directed and produced the feature-length documentary Lumumba—Death of a Prophet. I bring up these details to show that this docudrama, which has received so little publicity, is of more than a casual interest of this talented filmmaker.

Those of us who have read Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible already know something of our country’s sad complicity in the betrayal and murder of the independent-minded statesman. This film provides far more details, chronicling the events leading up to the Congo’s independence from what was one of the most despotic and cruelest of all the nations that had held Africans in chains, Belgium. Matters moved so fast that one day Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney) was beaten to within an inch of his life in a dungeon, and the next released, cleaned up, and whisked off to the European conference where the future of the nation was being debated. He emerges as one of the leaders possessed of a vision of a nation uniting all the fractious tribes and standing firm against any post-colonial domination by white powers.

Lumumba runs afoul of the CIA and other agencies by his determination to keep the rich resources of the Katanga province for the Congo, rather than to allow the Belgian and American countries to carry them away. His harsh manner gets in the way at times, making enemies of other powerful Congolese willing to sell out to foreign powers. When they fear that he will accept help from the Russians (both the film and Barbara Kingsolver maintain that Lumumba was bluffing), the CIA buys his overthrow for a million dollars paid to the man whom Lumumba had mentored, Joseph Mobuto (Alex Descas). And thus, arises another of the dictatorial monsters created by the anti-Communist paranoia of the times.

If the film is correct, Africa lost the opportunity of erecting a stable, democratic government when Patrice Lumumba was killed. The film simplifies the many complex issues and happenings during Lumumba’s brief months of power, and it gives us just a hint of his personal life, his loyal and long-suffering wife Pauline played effectively by Mariam Kaba. The film pulls no punches in depicting his brutal murder, so it might not be for everyone. But for those looking for some insight into history and an example of a brave man facing death, this is a film well worth the effort in searching it out.

Reprinted from the Feb. 2002 VP.

A Dog’s Purpose (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.  Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

1 Peter 4:9-10

MomBailBoy

Mom & her son Ethan enjoy a moment with the dog they rescued from a closed-up car. (c) Universal Pictures

The author of 1 Peter was addressing, of course, humans, but his admonition to serve is certainly exemplified by the canine hero/ine in director Lasse Hallstrom’s latest film, based on W. Bruce Cameron’s novel. I don’t know all the facts of the controversy over the alleged mistreatment of a dog during the making of the film, but I don’t think that the maker of Hachiko: A Dog’s Story would have allowed this had he known. These two films were helmed by a man who clearly loves “man’s best friend.”

My only qualm is the acceptance of the Eastern doctrine of reincarnation, but this is the link connecting all the dogs in the film, so for the sake of the story, I went along with the concept. As a film that demonstrates love and loss, loyalty and service, this will serve as a good family outing.

The film begins with Bailey philosophizing about the meaning of life. “Are we here for a reason?” the dog (voice of Josh Gad,) asks. (All the sequences are narrated by Bailey.) At first Bailey is

a cuddly golden retriever puppy that 8-year-old Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) and his mother (Juliet Rylance) find almost prostrate with heat in a locked car. (That they break the window and take the dog home without any interchange with the car’s negligent owner might require some parental explanation to young viewers, because the film offers none, but hey, this is a movie.)

Ethan’s alcoholic father (Luke Kirby) is dubious at first about keeping the dog, but gives in. There follows a series of events through the next ten years that includes Bailey’s love for retrieving a deflated football for Ethan; the dog’s nudging teenaged Ethan into a relationship with Hannah (Britt Robertson), who soon loves the dog as much as Ethan does; the dashing of their plans to go off to college together; and the inevitable death of the old and sick Bailey at the vet’s office.

Next, Bailey reawakens as a German Shepherd pup named Ellie (quite a shock when the dog notices something is missing between his hind legs). Chosen for the K-9 division of the Chicago Police Department, Ellie forms a close bond with her handler Carlos (John Ortiz). The dog empathizes with the lonely man, still not recovered apparently from the loss of his wife. Their relationship ends abruptly, with Ellie’s heroic act during a kidnaping. As a short-legged Corgi named Tino, the dog provides companionship for still another lonely person, female college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Tino also serves as an agent for romance for Maya and another African American student, also a dog owner.

Last of all, Bailey returns as Buddy, a lost mutt (now a mixture of Australian Shepherd and St. Bernard) who re-enters the life of the now grown Ethan (Dennis Quaid). Companionship and service are again themes because Ethan too is very lonely as a farmer who had given up his dreams of college and a life with Hannah due to a sad event in high school. Again, it is Bailey who brings Ethan and Hannah (Peggy Lipton) back together. When Buddie discovers that old flattened football in the barn, he makes his startled master aware of his identity.

Despite some improbabilities, I think anyone who has ever owned a dog will enjoy this film. It took me back to my childhood days when one of the heartaches growing out of my parents’ divorce was having to give up my pet chow Blackie, one of the joys of which had been for me to emerge from school at the end of the afternoon and find him patiently waiting to walk home with me, (No leash laws or fences in those more innocent days.) Back then my favorite film was Lassie, Come Home, which was to launch several TV series. The euthanasia of the aged Bailey was especially moving because I held Tigger, who had grown up with our children, in my arms while the vet injected the drug that would end his suffering and his life.

The film is often as funny as it is moving, thanks to the comments that Bailey makes. He is not all-knowing, his remarks coming from his limited understanding of human behavior. He doesn’t know what they do when they mysteriously go away, and when the teenaged Ethan and Hannah kiss in the car, he wonders at first if there is food in their mouths that they are sharing or fighting over.

As a tribute to the unconditional love and loyalty of dogs, this is a film both adults and children can enjoy.

This review with a set of questions will be in the March 2017 issue of VP.

 

Things to Come (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hours 43 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating: (1-5): 4.5

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.

Proverbs 3:13-14

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Nathalie enjoys the company of her former student Fabien. (c) Sundance Selects

 Lay aside any thought of the 1936 science fiction film of the same name when you go to see French writer/director Mia Hansen-Love’s film about a middle-aged woman facing loss. Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) is a Parisian high school philosophy teacher and writer. For 25 years she and her husband Heinz (André Marcon) have shared a marriage with little passion. He too is a teacher who loves books. Almost every wall of their apartment is lined with bookcases full of tomes belonging to both of them. Their two grown children are beginning a life on their own, though they keep in close touch. When the children discover their father has a mistress, they are upset by his deceit, telling him he must choose between the women. So, Heinz informs Nathalie that he has met someone and is leaving her. Shocked by his revelation, she responds wistfully, “I expected you to love me forever. What an idiot!” The gap in her life is well symbolized by the large spaces in their book shelves as Heinz packs his belongings and moves out.

Nathalie also is dealing with a troublesome elderly mother (Edith Scob) whose health is declining. Once a model, the vain woman seems to hate being sidelined, removed from public attention, so she does all the wrong things to gain attention from the world that has shoved her aside. Because her health is bad as her attitude, and the local emergency squad growing tired of being called to her apartment several times a week, Nathalie places her in a retirement home where “the smell of death” is in the air. Soon the daughter is planning with a priest her mother’s funeral.

Another loss is interwoven through the film as she meets several times with two editors of her philosophy text book that she had written. In the new edition, the two propose all kinds of graphic changes that will make the book more appealing to young people. Regarding their suggestions as a watering down that will probably flow over into her text, Nathalie is disturbed by this. The eventual outcome of their negotiations is not pleasant.

She is cheered up by a meeting up with her favorite former pupil, Fabien (Roman Kolinka). Brilliant and free spirited, he soon makes it apparent that their beliefs and thoughts no longer move in parallel lines, so she senses another loss, that of the influence over him that she once had enjoyed. There is still another loss, apparent in the moving sequence when she goes to the family’s sea-side cottage to pack up some of her possessions. The place belongs to Heinz’s family, so she knows this will be her last visit, painful because it holds so many fond memories of vacations spent with the children and long, meditative walks along the beach.

Fabien has surprised her by giving up a promising academic career and moving into a commune of anarchists situated in the foothills of the Alps. Her deciding to pay them a visit, after several scenes where the older teacher and young man have enjoyed each other’s company, lead us at first to think this might be turning into a Fall/Spring time romance. However, this is not a Hollywood production—you know, wherein the heroine has one or two female friends telling her that the answer to her loneliness is to find a new man. From her numerous references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Blaise Pascal, and others, we know that philosophy is not just an academic matter for her. It informs and supports her everyday life.

When Fabien picks her up at the train station, she almost celebrates her new-found freedom—free from a dull, uncaring husband, free from being responsible for her children; free from having to suddenly dash off to deal with a crisis involving her mother; and apparently free of her job now. There is one responsibility she still is saddled with, one that adds a note of humor—her mother’s large cat with which she travels, placing it in a pet carrier. At the farm, she is relieved of it when it proves that its instinct for catching mice is still strong.

Things to come for Nathalie by the end of the film are uncertain. She knows that freedom also involves loneliness. We see that she is a very resilient woman, one who, if not faith, certainly has her philosophy to support her to cope with her losses. She shows this during the scene when, from the window of a Parisian bus, she spots Heinz walking with a woman very much younger than he. For a moment, she apparently feels the pang of rejection, but suddenly she bursts out laughing. I presume it is at the absurdity of Heinz following the usual path of the older man seeking his youth by leaving a wife of appropriate age for someone barely out of adolescence.

In the classroom, Nathalie has told her students, “So long as we desire, we can do without happiness.” The things that have come in her life are putting this to the test. This thought comes from the excerpt she reads to the class from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s wildly popular 18th century novel Julie, or the New Heloise: “Woe to him who has nothing to desire! He loses everything he owns. We enjoy less what we obtain than what we desire, and are happy only before becoming so.” Words to live by? Nathalie will find out. One thing for certain, she will be her own person, not needing to find and cling to a new man for security and identity, like so many women in romance novels. I think director/writer Mike Mills would approve of her as a fit companion for the three characters in his 20th Century Women.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.

20th Century Women (2016)

Rated R. Running Time: 1 hour 59 min.

Our contents Ratings: Violence 1; Language 4; Sex 6/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 

 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.

Deuteronomy 6:6-7

Train children in the right way,
and when old, they will not stray.

Proverbs 22:6

Group

Dorothea (C) seeks help raising her son Jamie (LL) from Abie (UL) & Julie (LR), with her boarder William (LR) of occasional help. (c) A24

Director Mike Mills gives us an interesting perspective on parenting in his new film, set in the summer of 1979. It was a time of great change, with the Feminist Movement following hard upon the heels of the Civil Rights and the Gay Rights Movement. In Santa Barbara, California Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), the divorced, middle-aged single mother of 15-year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is deeply concerned over her son’s development into manhood. In the Scriptural passages above, it was assumed that the father would take the lead, assisted by the wife, but there is no husband in Dorothea’s life.

There is a man in her house, William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who is helping Dorothea restore her large old house while boarding there. But rebuilding a house is far simpler than building a man. William, more interested in relating to Abbie than to Jamie, is not the man to help her with her question, “How do you be a good man?” So, she turns to the other boarder in her house, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and also to Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s s best friend at school. Each of them she thinks of as a “twentieth century woman.” She asks them to share their lives with her son, apparently thinking this will help in his maturation. It is important to note that when Dorothea asks for help she is not asking for them to bed down Jamie. She does not equate being a “good man” with possessing the knowledge of skillful sexual techniques. She begot Jamie while wedded to a man, but he was not the good man she wants her son to become. After they divorced, the father has not contacted his son for five years.

Jamie is not at all pleased with her request, angrily riding away on his skateboard when she tells him. He thinks he can manage without all the interference.

Julie is just a couple of years older than Jamie, and the magenta-haired Abbie a few years older than Julie. Abbie is a talented photographer whose current project is to take pictures of her possessions that she believes will reveal her nature. She loves dancing at a club, frequently taking along her two younger friends. She has a troubled relationship with her mother, the cause of which I will leave to you to discover.

Julie is so deeply committed to her friendship with Jamie that she wants to keep their relationship Platonic, even though her frequent sleeping with Jamie in bed tests his sexual restraint. After she has sex with another boy in the back seat of a car, she becomes worried because the boy came before he could withdraw. She worriedly informs her best friend about what might happen, and this leads to a somewhat humorous, but tense, sequence in which Jamie buys a pregnancy test kit at a drugstore and brings it home to her.

Julie, too, though discussing sex very frankly with Jamie at one point (she admits to never having an orgasm), is one who values friendship over sex, very unusual for most characters in Hollywood movies dealing with young people. She knows that at their age when passion gives way to coitus, the pair soon split up because of guilt or other reason, the lovers seldom again seeing each other. She does not want that to happen to her and Jamie.

In a sub-plot the deep bonds among the three women and Jamie provide support for Abbie during her bout with cervical cancer, supposedly beaten years ago, but suddenly reoccurring. There is also an interesting scene in which all of them are in their living room watching President Carter on TV give his “crisis of confidence” speech. William’s response to the dark tone of the speech is that Carter is screwed up. But Dorothea says, “Beautiful,” perhaps seeing it as a description of how she has been feeling in the changing world. Pay close attention to the camera cut-aways as Carter is speaking. One of them, while he says “freedom,” is of a red bi-plane soaring through the sky. This refers to one of Dorothea’s unfulfilled ambitions in the past, and the plane will reappear at the end of the film.

Mike Mills, who also wrote the script, reportedly based Dororthea on his own remarkable mother. As played by Annette Bening, she is a complex, caring mother, one of the most interesting screen mothers to be seen outside a Susan Sarandon movie. She plans ahead in regard to shaping her son into a good man, and yet can be impulsive. When, at the beginning of the film, her car catches on fire, she invites the firemen who rushed to the scene to come to her birthday party that night. That they do show up is a tribute to her earnest persuasiveness, also evident in Julie and Abbie’s agreeing to help in her son-raising project. That she is successful we see later when Jamie himself says, “I want to be a good man.”

One of my disappointments with this year’s Oscar nominations is that this film, and Annette Bening in particular, was passed over. Some of the promiscuous sex of some of the characters might be unsettling to some viewers, but do not let this cause you to make the same mistake as the Academy and ignore it. Some of Dorothea’s observations are worth remembering, such as, “Whatever you imagine your life is going to be like, know your life is not going to be anything like that.” Or her comment that the people who help you might not be the people you thought or want, but the people who show up.

There are so many insightful scenes and subplots that I have been able to describe just a few in this review. The flashbacks are told in voice-over by Jamie mainly, with the women also contributing. They speak not only of their past, but even look ahead to the future as if they had traveled in a time machine, revealing the fate of each one at the end of the century.

With the skillful insertion of newsreels, archival photos, and such activities as the women’s smoking, Jamie participating in the new skate board craze, and a great deal of references to feminist literature and Judy Blume, the film reflects well the time between the raucous Sixties and the soon-to-come Reagan era. All the characters are well delineated, even William, who no father figure or role model for Jamie, is an interesting carry-over from the Hippy era. This is one of the most original coming of age films you are likely to see this year.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.