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Hidden Figures: The Real 20th Century Women?

January 6, 2017


Hidden Figures isn’t just one of the year’s best movies, it’s also got one of the year’s best titles. It works on two levels—as a math reference, but also as acknowledgement that the heroic African-American female math geniuses who contributed to NASA winning the Space Race in the ’60s have remained hidden from history… until now.

But I’ve got an even better title for this wonderfully human film: 20th Century Women. Too bad that moniker was already taken by an inferior movie, set in 1979 Santa Barbara, Calif. and starring Annette Bening as a single mother trying to raise her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann) with the help of two female friends (Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning). The cast is spot-on: Bening has earned heaps of praise, as well as a Golden Globe nod and major Oscar buzz, but Zumann doesn’t hit a false note either. Gerwig didn’t annoy me for the first time ever with her precious quirkiness. Fanning did annoy me, but that was the point of her mopey character, so she did her job well.

Writer-director Mike Mills (Beginners) devises a seductive visual style, but his script comes up short in its depiction of Bening’s character. Early on, we’re told she wanted to be a military pilot but wasn’t allowed due to her gender, and Mills circles back to that point in the end, but by then you’ve forgotten all about it. In between are interesting individual scenes (although way too much punk-rock dancing), yet as hard as Bening works to depict her character as a flesh-and-blood human being, she remains a frustrating mystery. Zumann’s character even says so in a voiceover. Yes, human lives are messy and self-contradictory. But the job of a filmmaker is to cut through that and bring out a character’s essence, and on that point, Mills fails.

Hidden Figures director Theodore Melfi (who co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, author of Mean Girls 2… wait, there was a Mean Girls 2?) brings the same lovely, naturalistic touch to this story as he did to the seriously underrated 2014 Bill Murray-Melissa McCarthy dramedy St. Vincent. All of the characters are fully three-dimensional, whether it’s Octavia Spencer as a computer whiz; Taraji P. Henson as a math savant; or Janelle Monae as an aspiring engineer.

They’re stymied in pursuit of their dreams due to the double whammy of prejudice against their gender and their race, and theirs is truly the story of 20th Century women. It turns out even the sky had a glass ceiling. If Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in heels, these women similarly matched their male coworkers, many of whom were backwards heels.

Still, Melfi loves his characters, and even the would-be villains—Jim Parsons as a haughty sexist (slyly playing against his lovable-nerd Big Bang Theory image) and Kirsten Dunst as Spencer’s casually racist boss—show signs of growth, minuscule as they may be. And Kevin Costner gives his best performance since… well, ever… as Henson’s hard-nosed, gum-chomping, tough-but-fair supervisor. Oh, and Mahershala Ali, reteaming with Moonlight‘s Monae, stirs up fiery chemistry with Henson as a military man who falls in love with her and her three adorable daughters.

As for the three female leads, I’d give ’em all Oscars, in a tie with Fences‘ Viola Davis for Best Supporting Actress. A movie like this is why the Screen Actors Guild invented the Best Ensemble award. Bening may win Best Actress for 20th Century Women (unless, God forbid, Natalie Portman takes home a second Oscar for her ghastly Jackie), and it’s a shame these other four women are all grouped in a supporting category. I guess that’s just another glass ceiling that needs to be shattered by 21st Century African-American women.

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  1. Oh God, I love this review of both movies!

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