Friday, January 27, 2017

20th Century Women

20TH CENTURY WOMEN (Mike Mills, 2016)

Fifty-five-year-old Dorothea (Annette Bening) is raising her fifteen-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) on her own in 1979 Santa Barbara, but as he is coming of age in 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, she worries that she isn’t doing enough to help him become the man she would like him to become. The only man with any consistency in her life is William (Billy Crudup), a handyman renting a room in Dorothea’s large home. While he is the kind of masculine and thoughtful type she’d like Jamie to model, her son doesn’t really have anything to do with him.

Instead Dorothea turns to the two other female presences around Jamie on a daily basis. Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer in her mid-twenties, is also a boarder and fulfills something of a cool older sister role. Seventeen-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s closest friend. She often sneaks into his room late at night to talk and sleep by his side. Although Jamie wishes they were romantically and physically involved, Julie insists that their closeness is strictly friendship. Jamie listens closely to the guidance of these women, hoping in part that taking their advice will help him develop a closer relationship with his mother.

The communal atmosphere in Dorothea’s house extends to the perspectives the film collects. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN unspools like a memoir with multiple authors, as the most central characters contribute voiceovers about the situation at this specific point in time and what the future holds for them. Dorothea and Jamie are the nucleus, but those orbiting them for this fleeting moment adopt a primary role from time to time. Writer-director Mike Mills builds the fluctuating dynamic by being deliberate in revealing the protagonists’ connections, which often aren’t what they might appear to be on first glance.

Mills jettisons some of the affectations that marked his previous film, BEGINNERS, resulting in a looser tone that rides the wave these characters have caught. Although he shares how things will turn out for those in the household, there’s no sense of grand design in getting them there. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN takes a snapshot of a pivotal time but not one with an accompanying a map to follow. All of the characters share a rudderless quality as they live through a transition they might sense but are impotent to steer through.

Despite the stylistic flourishes that might stake a directorial voice, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN is rooted in the performances. As a first-time mother at 40 and a child of the Depression who feels attracted and resistant to a more freewheeling life, Dorothea straddles the generational line. She wants to understand the appeal of Black Flag but is more partial to the more tuneful songs of Talking Heads. Bening displays Dorothea’s struggle to integrate open-minded and more rigid parenting as loving and present yet emotionally cool and inexplicably distant. It’s a hard balance to strike but one that shows why Jamie searches for a tighter bond with his mother. Zumann plays Jamie with a sponge-like quality that is endearing rather than needy. Fanning finds the perilousness of the idealized, self-possessed girl who is racked with her own neuroses. Gerwig inhabits the restlessness of not yet living how you envisioned adulthood. Crudup exudes the nature of a blue collar sage, yet like everyone else, William is merely drifting. For as much uncertainty and tension they face, Mills uses the voiceovers, with their future knowledge, to reassure that it’s OK if we can’t plot every step through the world.

Grade: B

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