Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
I’m worried about Annette Bening. I’ve never been her biggest cheerleader, but with good material (The Grifters, American Beauty), she can be tremendous on screen. Of all the movies she has made since 2010, I’ve now seen three, and she plays a variation of the same type of character in each—the Bohemian mom-type who really wants to understand her kids and help them fully realize themselves. Okay, in The Kids Are All Right she’s less that, but the movie has that vibe to it. She’s very much that in Ruby Sparks, a film I hated despite being told how great it is. And she is the full realization of that in 20th Century Women. This is a personality type that I have come to know (through my wife) as “crunchy granola.”
20th Century Women is at least a vaguely autobiographical of writer/director Mike Mills (not the bass player from R.E.M.). The film takes place in Santa Barbara in 1979 and concerns Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who is 15 and lives with Dorothea (Annette Bening), his divorced mother. Dorothea, in addition to her normal job, runs a boarding house. Two of the residents, mechanic and part-time carpenter William (Billy Crudup) and photographer/cancer survivor Abbie (Greta Gerwig) are going to be important to the story as well. The final piece of the puzzle is Julie (Elle Fanning), who is Jamie’s friend and often sleeps with him in his room, but refuses to have sex with him since she believes this will destroy their friendship.
Dorothea is very much Bohemian, as we see in several scenes of her loose parenting. However, she is worried that she is unable to connect with Jamie and asks Abbie and Julie to help raise him into the sort of man she would like him to be. Julie has a pregnancy scare thanks to unprotected sex with a boy from the high school, and Jamie also sits with Abbie as she goes for a final cancer screening and learns that while the cancer is gone, she will likely never have children. Abbie also tries to instruct Jamie in feminism by giving him books and simultaneously attempts to teach him to pick up women, telling him that letting Julie sleep in his bed and not demanding sex is something he should no longer allow. She also starts an affair with William.
Jamie struggles with growing up, toying around with the punk scene but finding more solace in art rock bands like Talking Heads. He eventually runs away with Julie, who continues to refuse to have sex with him. Eventually, Jamie reunites with his mother, a revelation which I will not go into. At the end of the film, we get short continuing stories of the five characters (actually, we get Dorothea’s earlier) and the film ends.
The thing about 20th Century Women is that aside from being a strange coming-of-age story, I don’t really know what the hell it was about. It seems to be more or less just a pseudo-autobiography of someone I know nothing about, interesting perhaps because it was unusual. But unlike a lot of such stories with which I am familiar, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point here. I’m not sure that Jamie and Dorothea end up with any more of an understanding of each other at the end of the film than they have at the start. They perhaps are more willing to accept each other, but other than that, I think they’re still miles apart in a lot of respects.
One of the better things about the film is the soundtrack. 1979 was a great year for music even if the film uses a lot of music from the previous year or two, which is also a little disappointing. A lot of the Talking Heads music, for instance, comes from More Songs about Buildings and Food rather than Fear of Music, their 1979 release (and a far-superior album in my opinion). There are clips from DEVO’s 1978 album as well. There are also clips from Black Flag, from an album that I’m pretty sure came out in 1981 (the year of their first studio album, although I can’t honestly be sure).
20th Century Women feels like a bit of a mess. It’s a movie that feels very much like it’s about itself and not a great deal more. The performances are fine, for the most part. Greta Gerwig is good, as she generally is, as is Elle Fanning. In the main, though, the characters aren’t that interesting and the problems that crop up aren’t that interesting, either. I can’t say I didn’t like the film, but I also can’t say that I didn’t think it was anything that exciting or impressive. Mike Mills may well have some skill as a storyteller, but in this case, he needs a much more interesting story to tell.
Why to watch 20th Century Women: Great soundtrack, even if it’s not accurate.
Why not to watch: Annette Bening has become the queen of crunchy granola.