20th Century Women (2016)

13 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” feels like a classy, edgy, bittersweet novel you could read in peace and silence and tell your friends about over cups of coffee. If I didn’t catch sight of the Best Original Screenplay nomination for this film at the 89th Academy Awards (before seeing the film on DVD), I would’ve thought this script was adapted from such a novel. But nope—the script is original and seemingly semi-autobiographical, based on elements of writer-director Mills’ childhood. Maybe it feels like a novel because of all the detail he inserts into both the writing and the directing, as well as the deep characterization within all five (yes, FIVE) key characters of the story. It feels authentic, drowns in nostalgia, and is presented like a deeply composed character study in which you want to stay and be absorbed by as much information about the people and their environment as possible.

“20th Century Women” takes place in Santa Barbara, CA in 1979. It’s a time when the fads are punk music and skateboarding, Jimmy Carter is looking more tired on TV, and just about everyone smokes. The story, such as it is, mainly revolves around the concerns of a middle-aged mother for her 15-year-old son—will he grow up to be “a good man” being raised in this world? She enlists the help of the boy’s would-be girlfriend and two tenants of her boarding house to make sure he’s on the right track.

I’ll go over these characters one at a time. We’ll start with the semi-autobiographical protagonist (i.e. Mills’ fictional childhood counterpart): Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann). Jamie’s a young, impressionable, likable, lost boy. He’s like a puppy everyone wants to be there for (everyone except his male peers, of course). He tries new things, tries to fit in with the local skater boys, wants to experience sex, and like most teenage boys, doesn’t really know what he wants in life and hides his personal fears. He’s a good kid who could grow up to be a good man.

There’s an older girl in Jamie’s life: Julie (Elle Fanning), who lives near the boarding house Jamie’s mother (I’ll get to her later) runs. She’s depressed, sexually active, and often spends the night in Jamie’s bed to escape the unpleasantness of her home life. Does she know sharing the same bed with Jamie while sharing a platonic relationship with him adds to his confusion and horniness? At one point, Jamie suggests they have sex, but Julie tells him having sex will ruin the special friendship they share.

One of the tenants in the boarding house is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a 20something, purple-haired, punk music loving, artistic photographer, who developed her lust for life after beginning treatment for cervical cancer. I don’t know if it’s the character as written so much as the way Gerwig portrays her, kind of like the flip side of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, but Abbie is my favorite character in a film that is rich with character.

Another tenant is a middle-aged, hippie-style carpenter for the boarding house. (I’m not sure how good of a handyman he is, considering the house constantly looks like it’s being renovated, making me wonder when he moved in and when the house first needed repairs.) He’s an easy charmer with all the right pickup techniques for women and thankfully the sense not to take advantage of them…as much as he’d like to. He’s a good guy who helps out from time to time, not just with repairs but with advice.

And last but definitely not least, we have Jamie’s 55-year-old, chain-smoking, emotionally complex mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), who asks these three people to help raise her son in this time of crisis, because she herself is unsure she’s doing a good enough job on her own. She spends so much time trying to figure out what is going on with everybody that she never bothers to find it beneath herself to discover what’s happening with her. That also includes the cultural changes happening around her—why do teens do what they do, what’s with the new music, why is smoking more dangerous now than it was when she was growing up, etc. She’s so open to the world that when her old car catches on fire in a parking lot, she even invites the firemen over for dinner. Even at the end of the film, we’re not so sure who this person is, but at the same time, she doesn’t entirely know either. But it’s still interesting to try and find out.

Much of the film is about the world that her tenants introduce both her and her son into. What’s fascinating about this journey is that there’s no one main character. The narrative voiceover is shared by all of them, so we can see and feel what these characters see and feel. I’m not so sure we needed this constant narration, because thanks to Mills’ brilliant writing, these characters aren’t played as quirky types. But I am glad it is there because I did appreciate getting into their mindsets. Even Dorothea, for as complex as she is, still comes across as a real person—a mysterious one we can only try and figure out.

The acting is fantastic, but it really comes down to Mike Mills and his script. His characters are wonderful company for a couple hours and his message is presented effectively through them. Times change, but people will always be strange and/or beautiful and/or complex and/or annoying and/or all of the above. All of that is portrayed wonderfully in “20th Century Women,” a film that challenges, provokes discussion, and more importantly, pleases.

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