James Stewart once told Peter Bogdanovich that films were “pieces of time.” Neither past, nor future, film is ever-present. In Mike Mills’s new film 20th Century Women, the scenes play like permanent present “pieces of time.” The energy is there in the scenes, which could have easily devolved to sitcom sketches, and the immediacy of the interaction among the actors.
20th Century Women takes place in Santa Barbara, California, in 1979 — 1979 being a dividing line between self-aware innocence and hard-nosed future. A character remarks, “They didn’t know this is the end of punk and Reagan is coming.” Mills recreates the 1979 mind set from the music track that runs the gamut from Rudy Vallee to The Talking Heads to The Raincoats, to the fashion styles to the collection of books the characters are reading (Future Shock, Watership Down, Our Bodies Our Selves, Sisterhood is Powerful, The Road Less Traveled) to the dingy torture chamber rock clubs to the VW Beetles to news clips and stills of the period. The culminating moment of the film is the famous (or infamous) Jimmy Carter crisis of confidence speech with Carter classifying the country in a great malaise and idealistically calling for an America of idealism not materialism. And we all know how that worked out.
The first shot is of a car in flames in a supermarket parking lot. A voice remarks, “That was my husband’s Ford Galaxy. We drove Jamie home from the hospital in that car.” The car belongs to Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a divorced woman in her late 50s, trying to raise her 15-year old son Jamie (Luca Jade Zumann) without a father. She lords it over a collection of misfits in a broken down, forever-being-restored house and the tenants become a surrogate family for Jamie – Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a proto-punk photographer who has died her hair red to duplicate the David Bowie look from The Man Who Fell To Earth; William (Billy Crudup), a laid back handyman who issues pronouncements like, “We’re very connected to the dirt and the dirt is me;” and Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s beautiful seventeen-year-old friend who sneaks into the house at night to sleep with Jamie – no sex, just talk because “friends can’t have sex and still be friends.” Dorothea’s relationship with Jamie has become strained and decides the problem is Jamie needs a man in his life in order to become a man. In the nominal plot, Dorothea corrals Abbie and Julie to help Jamie “become a man.” And this plan of action is just as successful as Carter’s speech.
20th Century Women is Mike Mills’s first film since Beginners and Mills once again mines personal biography. In Beginners, Mills recalls his father, a man who at seventy-five comes out and also finds out he has cancer. Plummer was the whole film and his bravura performance won Plummer an Oscar.
Mills might well do the same thing for Annette Bening, whose Dorothea reflects Mills’s relationship with his mother. In her role, Bening treads a very thin line that could easily send the film into the earth mother comedy realm of films like the Maggie Smith vehicles Travels With My Aunt and the recent The Lady in the Van. But with Bening’s carefully honed performance you see not only Dorothea’s quirkiness and imperiousness as a controlling matriarch, but also her loneliness and need for love and friendship. It is a great performance. Bening has perfect delivery and gets big laughs just by the way she delivers a line like, “Abbie, let’s go out tonight. I want to see this modern world.”
Mills also treads a thin line. Mills is dexterous with his one-liners, veering into glibness. He teeters on the diabetic sweetness of Beginners. And his precious Wes Anderson-like tableaux don’t wear well. But his film is alive in his characters and their multi-generational perspectives. 20th Century Women is bright and funny with characters (unlike the Coen Brothers) the director actually likes. He goes along with his characters no matter where they may take him.
Besides what other film will you see this year where a character gets beat-up arguing over the advantages of clitoral stimulation?