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John DoughertyMay 24, 2024
Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig in "20th Century Women."Annette Bening, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig in "20th Century Women." (CNS photo/A24 Films) 

If you had an Internet connection last week, you know about Harrison Butker’s commencement address at Benedictine College. Mr. Butker’s comments on women and his interpretation of “traditional Catholic values” inspired the most discourse, but there was one little-discussed line that caught my attention: “The road ahead is bright, things are changing, society is shifting, and people young and old are embracing tradition.” It was the internal contradiction of that line that made me pause: Something new is happening; we’re going back to the old ways.

In times of change and uncertainty, people often react by retreating to what is steady and familiar. The wisdom of the past still has something to teach us today, of course. But the traditionalism espoused by Mr. Butker and others goes further. It looks at a world that isbecoming new and unfamiliar and reacts with fear instead of curiosity, attempting to throw history into reverse.

This week’s Catholic Movie Club film, “20th Century Women” (2016), written and directed by Mike Mills, takes place during another moment of historical change: 1979. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the advent of the birth control pill and second-wave feminism, the fading of the flower children and the rise of punk, an unlikely family comes together on the shores of Southern California. Faced with changes both personal and societal, the characters find themselves torn between embracing the new and retreating into the familiar.

Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a single mother and chain-smoking free spirit, has no idea what to do with her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Like many parents of teenagers, she feels a distance growing between them: “I know him less every day.” Taking a page from her own it-takes-a-village Great Depression upbringing, she enlists two young women to help Jamie navigate the perilous transition into adulthood. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a punky artist recovering from cervical cancer who boards at the Fields’ home; Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s wild-child best friend and unrequited crush. Drawing on their unique perspectives and talents, the three women try to help Jamie find his way in a shifting and uncertain world, while doing the same for themselves.

The character most out-of-step with the changing times is Dorothea. By the standards of her generation, she is an independent woman: She always held her own job, she is raising her son on her own and when she was younger, she dreamed of joining the Air Force. But she clashes with newer forms of womanhood, like Julie’s (often risky) sexual liberation and Abbie’s confrontational feminism. When she listens to the punk music that Abbie and Jamie love, she can’t wrap her head around it (although she does respond to the Talking Heads). At first, it’s Dorothea who has to convince everyone to go along with her plan. But as Jamie ventures further into adulthood—and, consequently, further from Dorothea—she is the one who tries to pump the brakes, to bring things back to a place of comfort and familiarity. She is scared of growing distant from her son, but she is also scared of a world that seems like it has left her behind.

It’s a very human fear, one many viewers will find relatable. Like Dorothea, that fear might inspire us to yearn for an older (and supposedly simpler and purer) way of life. No one wants to see themselves as out of touch, and as we get older, we become more averse to the personal growth necessary to meet the demands of a changing world.

But our faith is not fixed in the past; it is the living out of eternal truths in the present. As St. Augustine wrote, God is “ever ancient, ever new.” Our faith does not contort itself to match whatever is in vogue, but it is responsive to the signs of the times, the new ways in which God calls us to live out the Gospel in an ever-changing world. “The People of God believes that it is led by the Lord’s Spirit, Who fills the earth,” we read in “Gaudium et Spes” (No. 11). “For faith throws a new light on everything, manifests God’s design for man’s total vocation, and thus directs the mind to solutions which are fully human.”

Similarly, the characters of “20th Century Women” find their way in the tension between boldness and wisdom, experience and exploration. They need to discover what new possibilities the modern world has to offer, while also discerning what always has and will be true. Their answers differ, but the central philosophy is the same: You can’t stop the clocks or freeze history. Change is the only constant. We follow an ancient call that draws us always forward into the new.

“20th Century Women” is streaming on Max and Kanopy.

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