I saw all three of these movies in about a one-week period, then wasted a lot of time before sitting down to write about them. That’s my thing now! It seems a bit lazy to collapse them together, but I honestly think about all three of them of them together — for me, they feel like meditations on tones I feel within each other.
I didn’t see Mike Mills “Beginners,” even though I wanted to. I have good friends who have seen it multiple times and love it…but at some point I heard it was really sad, and my anxiety kicked in. “I don’t know if you can handle a really sad movie,” my anxiety will tell me. “What if you start crying and then never stop crying and then you die from crying???” I know most people would hear their anxiety say that and be able to say “Anxiety, shut the fuck up, ok?” but I hear it and I process it the same way I do when anxiety tells me not to see some scary movies because I might die from fright.
That’s relevant here, because I saw the trailer for “20th Century Women” a half dozen times in the theater, and the trailer shows Dorothea (Annette Bening) telling Annie (Greta Gerwig) that Annie has special access to Dorothea’s son. “You get to see him out in the world as a real person. I never will.” — every time I saw that trailer, I’d think “Don’t do it…you know it’s coming, just don’t do it” and every time I saw that line I’d break down and tears would start streaming down my face. I almost didn’t see the movie as a result … my anxiety would just point to those tears and laugh.
That line, though! It somehow pulled all my parental fear and sadness down into one pithy drip. I don’t want my son to grow up without me! I don’t want to think about my son’s life without me! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to cry until I die from crying! All three of these movies deal with family and growing old and being alone in very different ways, and their approaches end up coloring how I think about the movies themselves. I guess the other thing they have in common is that they’re all holdovers from 2016 that didn’t make it to SF theaters until the last month or so — and each could have taken a spot on my list of favorite films from last year, they’re all pretty great.
“Toni Erdmann” and “20th Century Women” are more directly connected in tone and subject — they’re two of the funniest films I’ve seen in the theater in awhile, and they both feature eccentric parents who are struggling to connect with their aging (and estranging) children. They split from there, however, folding in other commentary and layers on top of those attempts to connect. I’m a defeated corporate lackey by day, and I loved the paper cut by paper cut assault on corporate behaviors in “Toni Edmann.” In that film, an unrepentant goof of a father struggles to connect with an adult daughter who has sacrificed her personal life and personality for corporate success. I appreciated the subtle imagery at play to convey the film’s Foucauldian “who’s really crazy?” questions, but it’s really the acting and subtle decay of Sandra Hüller’s Ines that really takes the film to the next level — by the time she physically reveals herself to her fellow corporate cellmates, the viewer has watched her slowly unwrap and unfold without even realizing how far she’s moved.
“20th Century Women” is a bit more conventional in its coming-of-age story — where Winifried/Toni helps his older daughter mature and appreciate life, Dorothea is instead helping her son navigate adolescence…definitely well covered ground. And where Peter Simonischek’s Winifried/Toni is able to push his eccentric personality into unexpecting corners, Dorothea’s less-mainstream aspects are getting pretty straight. That tension gets expressed repeatedly as Dorothea tries to find footing in familiar but unfamiliar territory — hammered home with some kinda heavy imagery of old cars getting renovated with new engines, an old falling apart house that’s getting restored, etc. But hey, I’m a sucker for ideas about “getting older” that don’t mean “growing up” and the idea that you can live your whole life without “growing up” if you do it right — that probably marks my own appreciation of these movies more than anything else. As with “Toni”, the acting is great here, especially Greta Gerwig in a role (late 70s punk rock feminista) that could have easily been an eyeroller (just as Peter Simonischek as Toni Erdmann could easily have been a broad groaner).
Finally, “Red Turtle” is a totally different fable but seeing it with my family likely helped to emphasize some of the onscreen family relationships differently than if I had seen it alone — or maybe I’m just obsessed with thinking about my family and feel some need to always relate texts to my own reality. In the film, a shipwrecked man creates his own paradise on a desolate island, before attempting to flee back to civilization. Those attempts to return are thwarted by spoiler events, however, causing him to stay on the island where he eventually creates a family.
As I was watching his attempt to escape the island, my six-year old son leaned over and whispered “Why is he trying to leave, right? It’s perfect there!” A running fantasy in our family is escaping to a Mexico beach town and never returning, so no real surprise that Archie quickly picked up on that thread in “Red Turtle” — and the family threesome of the film does relate well to our own threesome, especially the big strong and adventurous patriarchal figure. It feels weird to not point out that the appeal of this silent animated film is just how beautiful it is — the look and feel of the movie manages to be simple and nearly gestural while feeling detailed and overwhelmingly beautiful. The animation of simple ocean waves feels completely realistic in a way I’ve never seen before while at the same time looking very unrealistic as an actual rendering of “water.” There are moments of loss and fear of loss that connect with “Toni Edrmann” and “20th Century Women,” however, the family in “Red Turtle” comes apart as the child grows and leaves the island. There’s less drama, however, the film’s characters don’t transform into onscreen clowns or start going to punk shows in their desperate attempts to keep things intact — there’s a current of acceptance and flow in “Red Turtle” that doesn’t really allow for those frustrations, making it the most chill endpoint for all this family drama.