Synopsis – The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s.
My Take – Despite the great acclaim the film received at the New York Film Festival last fall, something about this film, especially the title seemed to put me off. It’s not that I have anything against film revolving around feminism or coming to age kind of film, I just don’t appreciate those kinds of ideas being forced down on a throat using the medium of cinema, I prefer to go through a film which helps me find its own expression. Plus reading online about how this was based (fictionally of course) on director Mike Mills life itself and assumed that this film would be a knock-off of 2000s Almost Famous, perhaps the greatest coming-of-age film ever made, mainly as both talk about the involvement of sex, drugs & hard rock in changing cultures. Thankfully, this film is much more than that! Like his previous film, 2010s Beginners, which brought us the story of his father’s late life, this time around director Mills walks us through the journey of his mother, well kind of. Nominated in the well deserving Original Screenplay category for the upcoming Oscars, this film is so emotionally powerful, it’s impossible to not be moved by it. Plus for a change, extensive use of voice-over is justified by its clever counterpoint with what we see on the screen. And what we see is a fine ensemble of actors making the most of an observant, intelligent, compassionate script by writer/director Mike Mills in a film which can be viewed as the story of three women, masked as a coming-of-age story for a teenage boy. The story follows Dorothea (Annette Bening), a chain-smoking single mother in her mid-50’s who seems to have surrendered to her own sadness and loneliness, while simultaneously trying to make sense of a changing world In 1979 Santa Barbara. Inhabiting a creaking Victorian mansion which is under continual remodeling with her only son, fifteen-year old skate punk son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), Dorothea makes sure the house is still full people. To make ends meet, Dorothea rents rooms to Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer and NYC punk scene drop-out, who has been successfully battling cervical cancer and William (Billy Crudup), the middle-aged handyman who is gradually renovating Dorothea’s 75-year-old house, and a New Age seeker who can’t accept the end of hippie dom and grow up.
The third female who is seemingly always present in the house is 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), a sexually promiscuous and borderline depressive girl, who doesn’t technically live in the house but might as well, as she often climbs in through Jamie’s bedroom window to talk and sleep with him, as part of a very close but platonic friendship. As a mother, Dorothea is loving and devoted, but also insecure and kind of clueless. She’s deeply concerned about raising her son to be “a good man” in the absence of a regular male influence, mainly as she rarely dates and William and Jamie don’t really connect. To help her, Dorothea enlists the two women to show Jamie their lives – the intent being to influence his growth in ways an older mother can’t. Of course, Jamie is at the age where exploring life isn’t necessarily best served by tagging along on a trip to the gynecologist with Abbie or having no-touch sleepovers with Julie. Jamie keeps insisting that he’s fine, but his world does begin to expand, just as his mother also comes out of her comfort zone to experience more of the modern age. This is a film about relationships, primarily of a mother and son. Here, director Mills delivers a personal story with genuine feeling. I loved the other dynamics as well. The characters of Abbie & Julie are strong as well. You watch 3 women in different age groups, help a boy know a little more about life. They speak differently, their relations to the boy are vastly diverse, but they’re women, who define feminism & the practicalities of life. Mills keeps the narrative heartfelt & by the time this story ends, you’re with the characters & you feel for them. This film isn’t about giving us some epic look at a group of friends or a family, but it is about the passage of time with people who are warm and caring and in a genuine way. Director Mike Mills isn’t an over-sentimental filmmaker, but he also doesn’t shy away from sentiment, mainly as there’s so much empathy for everyone here that it adds to the authenticity of the emotions. The film is all about the overwhelming part family plays in human development, not in grandly dramatic exercises but in the small notes like sitting in bed chatting or going with mother to a nightclub. As the credit sequence will tell you, life turns out fairly well despite the uncertainties of daily vicissitudes documented so distinctly here. That subtle discordance of people talking at and not to each other runs through the first half of the film. Jamie’s coming-of-age story, a volatile mix of stubborn familial resentment and unrequited love clobbers together with Dorothea’s own midlife crisis. “I had Jamie when I was 40.” Dorothea says; a fact that can help explain Dorothea’s free-range parenting approach, but also helps explain why Jamie’s sharp insights cut so deep. For a while there it always seems like its Jamie versus Dorothea, pulled apart by an ever widening generational gap. Then, like responding to the blessing of a wartime parlay, the factions in this film begin to center and calm. It is during this truce that the film begins to really take off, presenting its characters with vibrancy and humanity while flying through a more nuanced story arc. Almost independently both Jamie and Dorothea learn their goals are one in the same and the differences they have are little compared to their mutual respect for time which presents itself in rainbow tinged tracking shots and subtle fast-forwards.
Director Mills is not one to be nostalgic or glorify the past. His brilliant writing includes lines like “Wondering if you are happy is a great short cut to being depressed.” The film can be slow moving at times, but it’s the best I’ve seen in awhile at expressing what makes us tick. Real people are sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, and sometimes annoying. Each of the characters here are all of the above (just like you and me). Though I only occasionally found it funny, it seems, this is an indie film which appeals to that weird New York sense of humor. But while it only made me chuckle a few times, I must say I was amused by the various situations dealing with awkward moments between Jamie and Julie, this weird moment between Abbie and William where they are role playing, and generally Dorothea gives you 2nd hand embarrassment as Jamie’s mom. Though, on the flip side, there are some serious moments. They range from Abbie dealing with a scare, I won’t say of which kind, to Jamie dealing with a mom who feels she has gone from knowing everything about her kid to nearly nothing. For while there are some eyebrow raising moments, like when Abbie has everyone say menstruation during a dinner party, in general things are entertaining enough to firmly remind you this is a film, but they also seem real enough to make you question if this could be based on someone’s true story. Where Mike Mills‘s script, as charming as it is, lacks some edge and focus, his directing is compelling and full of interesting ideas. He overuses archival footage, voice-over narration, recognizable pop music, and timely references in order to fill in exposition about the times. But in doing so, he undercuts the dramatic tension of his plot and story. His pacing is too leisurely edited and the characters’ actions take a while to coagulate and interact. However, the words from his script are eloquent and quite effective as he creates vibrant characters worthy of your attention. For a film like this to work you need all around great performances, which luckily the film does. Annette Benning has been rightfully praised a lot. In one of her quietest but strongest performances, she brings tremendous warmth to the leading role. Elle Fanning is a treasure as she delivers yet another restrained, believable performance from start to end. Greta Grewig, a criminally underrated performer, is only getting better with every film and she’s fabulous here & the attitude she carries to portray a women fighting a serious illness, is nerve-wracking. Lucas Jade Zumann is natural to the core & his scenes with Benning, are the emotional core of the film. Billy Crudup, sandwiched between 3 beautiful women & a rebelling teenager, is a delight. He gets a smaller roll compared to the others, but he leaves a solid impression. On the whole, ‘20th Century Woman’ is an insightful film filled with an engrossing story, a richly-developed character study, wonderful dialog & an all-star ensemble cast, making it one of the finest films of the year.
Directed – Mike Mills
Rated – R
Run Time – 119 minutes