When Annette Bening, with an eerie steadiness, narrates in the beginning of the film, “In 1999, I will die of lung cancer,” it is immediately clear that writer and director Mike Mills is not pursuing drama by any ordinary means. Constructed in a series of vignettes, Mills’ exploration of human relationships prioritizes characters over plot and tracks their connections to the cultural environment.
During the summer of 1979 in Santa Barbara, chain-smoking single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) lives in a fixer-upper boarding house with her 15-year-old son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Will (Billy Crudup), an ex-hippie craftsman and solitary lost soul, helps Dorothea renovate in exchange for a place to live. Dorothea increasingly struggles to understand Jamie as he grapples with the trials of adolescence, so she enlists Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a tenant recovering from cancer and Julie (Elle Fanning), a neighbor two years Jamie’s senior, to help raise him. Though Jamie’s maturation constitutes the majority of the narrative, the film’s true focus is the women who influence and shape him. Jamie’s situation is the impetus for the three women’s individual journeys.
Narration is interspersed throughout and alternates between Dorothea and Jamie’s perspectives, revealing information about the characters as they struggle to find their place in 1979’s changing tides. Jamie and Abbie are helpless to the impending demise of punk rock, and Julie’s developing worldliness is suppressed by Santa Barbara’s sleepy climate. Will, apathetic and abandoned by ‘60’s counterculture, drifts without purpose. Dorothea, a child of the Depression, feels disconnected from the ‘70s. Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech screens in Dorothea’s living room, serving as an emblem of the aimlessness and disunity plaguing their generations.
Mills’s background in graphic design and music video is apparent in the film’s portrait-like cinematography. The softly lit opening shot of Dorothea’s Ford Galaxy erupting in a haze of orange flames in a parking lot, captured from an unmoving one-point perspective, is striking. Characters’ narrations are accompanied by archival images like Ingrid Bergman with Humphrey Bogart and The Talking Heads in concert from Jamie and Dorothea’s respective eras. One at a time, Abbie’s autobiographical polaroids are displayed on the full screen while new wave tunes blare, and moments of tension are embellished by muted, reverberating synth.
The attention to detail and sensory experience, though distinct and alluring, detracts from the film’s potential to excite emotion in viewers. It’s almost as if in an effort to avoid overripe sentimentality, Mills overcorrected and created a walk-through historical exhibit. The result is more a pastiche of cultural and artistic memorabilia than a cohesive narrative with an emotional arc.
Several relationship dynamics and character attributes, including Abbie’s sisterly advice for Jamie and Julie’s reading habits, are pulled from Mills’s own experiences. Perhaps his connections to the story explain his specificity and precious handling of his characters. His previous work, “Beginners,” was an effort by Mills to understand his father through art. “20th Century Women” is a similarly personal examination of his mother’s legacy.
Bening brilliantly embodies the humanity that the screenplay strives for. She embraces Dorothea’s contradictions with grace, effortlessly shifting from easygoing and laidback to uptight and defensive — all with a sense of humor and impeccable timing. Dorothea is inherently curious about others yet intensely guarded. Her unexplained polarities generate a mystique that reflects Mills’s realist approach to filmmaking.
Though sometimes disjointed, “20th Century Women” is lively and memorable thanks to its thoughtfully crafted characters.
Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann
Release Date: December 28, 2016
Image Courtesy of Launching Sound Films