Review: '20th Century Women'

Potent nostalgia, choice needle drops carry new Mike Mills film
It's the best of times and it's the worst of times in Mike Mills' best film yet, '20th Century Women.'

There is weight in the charming 20th Century Women—seriousness that keeps it from blowing away like a load of Styrofoam peanuts in the wind. That weight comes from the realization of how remote the seemingly near past actually is.

Mike Mills' third and best film (after Beginners and Thumbsucker) is also the closest to his models in the French New Wave. This fictionalized memoir recalls Louis Malle, the least radical of that assemblage of 1960s French filmmakers, and the one who turned out to have the warmest and longest view of all of them. Mills' Beginners was a memorial to a father who came out of the closet in his 70s. 20th Century Women honors Mills' mother as a woman whose life was bounded by the last century. The title isn't too lofty: the film commemorates the time's ideals, fascinations and naivete.

Spanning 1978-79, the story centers on Dorothea (Annette Bening). She owns an old, shambling, stuffed-with-ferns house in Santa Barbara. The place is being rebuilt by a gentle hippie handyman William (Billy Crudup). Her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), has an easy time in school. While he's occasionally bullied—the target of homophobic slurs, due to his interests in art and the Talking Heads—his life can be symbolized by the long, lazy slaloms he carves on his skateboard down the live-oak-covered hills.

Boy children in single-mother homes used to be fretted over—without a paternal model, surely they'd turn gay? What one loves about 20th Century Women is that the movie takes the opposite pole, insisting that a young man can learn a lot from hanging around women. Jamie has a sleepover pal Julie (Elle Fanning) who isn't interested in him sexually. She gives him lessons to make him cool, and advice like, "Guys aren't supposed to think about what they look like."

Jamie is also friendly with the twenty-something lodger, Abbie. She's played by the delightfully gawky Greta Gerwig, in brick-red hennaed hair. Gerwig here is not going to cure anybody's Greta Gerwig crush. In this telling, Abbie is the patient zero of punk rock in Santa Barbara, a student in NYC who had to come back West with her LPs after a medical crisis. Punk and a little bit of psychedelics bring a new wave of possibilities, opening a small window of liberation before Santa Barbara-area man Ronald Reagan arrives to slam it all shut.

The movie earns its needle drops: Talking Heads, DEVO, the Buzzcocks and The Clash. Inadvertently, Mills ends up commemorating the death of Bowie—who passed after filming wrapped—through the use of "DJ," a Berlin-era track that didn't get overplayed when the musician died last year.

Mills, a rock video director turned feature filmmaker, is far less precious than he's been in previous work. You'll remember his Oscar-winning Beginners (2011): that was the one where the dog talked and Melanie Laurent didn't. Mills still has an eye on pets: one sidebar in 20th Century Women is about a pair of pet zebra finches, birds that are said to die of broken hearts if their mates perish. (I've heard that said about them, but my finches have always been more pragmatic—they muddle through tragedy, just like the rest of us.) Mostly the film is sweet on the past, in this transition from hippie twilight to the kind-of-sort-of dancing at punk rock clubs. And the film is stitched with shots of a VW beetle sailing down coastal highways, leaving streaks behind it, like the blur on the figures in a disintegrating VHS tape. It's a bit of special effects indicating that the passengers in the car are stoned and on their way to fun.

Dorothea is a role that gives Bening a chance to display brittleness and authority, some grain and some rind. The film breaks the frame so much that there's barely a frame to remind us of the air of that time. Godard-wise, it quotes from texts as different as "Our Bodies, Ourselves", Judy Blume's novels and President Jimmy Carter's malaise speech. It may not be the movie about the cusp of the '70s and the '80s, but it gets so much so right that it's immersive: a bittersweet reminder of a lost world.

20th Century Women
R; 118 Min.
Camera Cinemas

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