Review: 20th Century Women

Director: Mike Mills

Stars: Annette Benning, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig

Forrest Gump’s mother talked a load of horseshit. Life may indeed be like a box of chocolates, but people who don’t know what to expect in a box of chocolates probably need to go back to school and start over. You get chocolates in a box of chocolates, but here’s the thing – and, yes, it is quite like life – they’re a jumble, a hodgepodge, an assortment. But everyone knows the assortment. Some of them you like, some of them you’ll do your damnedest to give away. Not everybody likes a strawberry creme. Moments are sweet, others get left, everyone always hopes there’s another layer.

But you wouldn’t eat all of it together.

Mike Mills’ latest film feels a little like an attempt to do just that. Set in 1979 and seeming heavily autobiographical (and I do presume here), 14 year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) lives with his single-mother Dorothea (Annette Benning) in a large house that constantly seems in the midst of renovations (hello symbolism!). They rent out two of their rooms; one to punk feminist Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the other to part-time mechanic, part-time potter William (Billy Crudup). Dorothea is starting to grow concerned that Jamie is lacking role models, so turns to Abbie and Jamie’s promiscuous best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) for assistance.

Jamie, aware of his mother’s creative attempt at providing him alternate avenues of inspiration, instead construes her gesture as disinterest, and so the five characters dance and intersect, the house a hive of contentious relationships and unrequited affections. Mills, who also writes, dabbles with the idea of throwing life lessons in the way of his characters, but seems keener to present this portion of their lives in a semi-frustrating mezzanine place; not quite revelatory, not quite subdued enough to pass as regular and truthful. 20th Century Women quickly nestles into the groove of American indie dramedy and breathes, relying heavily on it’s admittedly bravura cast to see things through. And drowning almost everything is Roger Neill’s dreamlike score. It recalls the music of Air (whom Mills frequently collaborated with). While this music is wonderful (I’ll be downloading it once I’ve finished writing this, assuming it’s available), it often overpowers the images. The same goes for the source music selections. Mills dials his cues to 11 when 7 or 8 would have been fine.

The cast is the big draw here, and it pays off. The writing is haphazard as suggested. If it’s occasionally clunky, it’s just as often rather charming, but the actors bring it to life. Benning makes hay with the material she’s given, keeping it the right side of the sassy post-menopause pseudo-bohemian stereotype that the script seems keen for her to play. Crudup sparkles quietly as William; and it feels as though we’re catching up with Trip Fontaine from The Virgin Suicides were it not for the chronological impossibility. Fanning is adeptly filling her resumé with bright and barbed work, herself coming across like a young Kirsten Dunst. And then there is Gerwig, stealing another movie like it’s her mandate to do so (and long may she continue).

Young Zumann holds his own admirably, but Mills risks losing him in the shuffle of an overly busy narrative that seems unsure of where it is headed. This is a fair reflection of how life plays out, with messy cross-cutting of interests and of relationships hampered by bad timing, but these two hours seem to amble a little aimlessly as a result. At the film’s beginning Mills seems impatient to settle, employing a number of nifty but distracting camera tricks in order to keep his film insistent, as though he’s a little scared of losing our attention. It reminds of his distinguished past in music videos, but one senses that 20th Century Women would feel more coherent with the confidence to ease up on the gimmicks.

Fortunately, he does, for the most part, and the film’s middle section, while still all over the place, is comfortably its most pleasing. Abbie starts educating Jamie in feminism, something which alarms Dorothea, while his unrequited affection for Julie plays out via a number of uncomfortable and embarrassing truisms. The openness about female sexuality here is fun and encouraging and, if nothing else, 20th Century Women nails the meaning and importance of punk and its intrinsic connections to youth and frustration. With all of this mixing, Mills’ movie fizzes. But with everything unspooled, the process of tidying it again becomes a little troublesome. Again it feels as though there’s uncertainty as to whether to tie up loose ends or leave them in a mess; movie romance versus authenticity. In the end Mills finds a sort of middle ground, satisfying in a way, but also not.

There’s a lot of affection on the screen, and this is something of a passion project for its creator, one feels. Likewise the cast are quite evidently relishing the characters they’ve been given, and these elements in themselves make 20th Century Women an enjoyable watch. Everyone’s concern for Jamie gains an undercurrent of comedy value because, really, he seems to be doing better than any of them. And the questions over the changes to male roles in society feel as open-ended in 1979 as they do now. All men seem like boys. Jamie and William, separated by thirty plus years, feel as mature as one another. Mills ruminates that it is the women that keep men together, steer them, mother them, love them. That men never really grow up; they just get supported differently. If this film is his toast to these women, I raise my glass in spirit.

And even if life isn’t like a box of chocolates, this movie is. If his presentation suggests he wants us to eat all of the chocolates at once, there are enough goodies in there to make it worth it.

Score:  3

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