20th Century Women

★★★★

This autobiographical movie by writer-director Mike Mills, feels like a complement to his last film Beginners, about Mills’ father, who came out as gay at the age of 75. Here we instead are immersed in the world of Mills’ teen years growing up in Santa Barbara, California (a coastal ex-urb of Los Angeles) with his divorced mother who runs a boarding home.

Like Beginners, which was anchored by an excellent performance by Christopher Plummer, this film depends for its vitality on the naturalistic acting of Annette Bening as Dorothea. [That she was not nominated for an Oscar is a crime, and this omission helps me build my case for a future anti-Meryl Streep post.]

Set in 1979, the director’s stand-in,  Jamie (the fantastic Lucas Jade Zumann), is 15 and doing perfectly fine, but his 55 year old mother’s anxiety about how he will cope in the modern world leads her to recruit others to help raise him. Those others include her two boarders, mellow carpenter William (Billy Crudup) and punk-inspired photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Most cluelessly, she decides to include Jamie’s crush, 17 year old Julie (Elle Fanning) in this cabal of surrogate parents, despite her own lack of maturity.

Jamie explains away his mother’s odd behaviour by explaining that she grew up during the Great Depression. In fact he has to use this explanation so many times eventually it contracts to: “she’s from the Depression”.

Is the film about parents trying too hard, or not trying hard enough? Well these kind of plotless, slice of life films often provoke speculation about their meaning and there is much one could speculate about here.  It does seem that Dorothea is lost, and everyone can see it but her, including her son, who in a painful scene reads her a passage from a feminist book about the invisibility of older women.  She can’t see this as her son trying to connect with her in a real way and reacts poorly, humiliated.  Having been left by Jamie’s father, one wonders if she can’t help but see Jamie’s normative teenage tasks of individuation and identity formation as preludes to him leaving.  It is a huge credit to the performances of Bening and Zumann that all of this possible subtext can be read from their faces.

All this being said, this is a very slowly paced movie. It’s two hours and feels like three, and loses much steam toward the end.  But it is very well acted and beautifully shot.  Well worth one’s time.

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