In 2010 Mike Mills wrote and directed Beginners, which won an Oscar for Christopher Plummer. Hal, the role played by Plummer, is a man who came out several years after his wife’s death. Mills’ own father is the inspiration for the character of Hal.
Now, Mills is back with 20th Century Women, an engaging film based primarily on his mother. She trained to be a pilot, but ended up working as a draftsperson and raising a son more or less on her own. Mills describes his mother as being “like Amelia Earhart and Humphrey Bogart put together”.
The film takes place in 1979 Santa Barbara, a pivotal time in the development of teenager Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Since he is not in contact with his father, his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) acts to provide Jamie with mentors for his transition to manhood.
After striking out with her first candidate, her boarder William (Billy Crudup), Dorothea tries a less conventional approach. She asks Abbie (Greta Gerwig), another boarder, and Jamie’s friend Julie (Elle Fanning), if they will take on the task. Amazingly, both agree.
Abbie is a decade older than Jamie, and a survivor of cervical cancer. She introduces him to punk rock and gives him books like Our Bodies, Ourselves. (Based on this reading, Jamie challenges another boy on the mechanics of the female orgasm-and gets beaten to a pulp.)
Jamie’s relationship with Julie is more problematic. The two share a bed each night, for cuddling purposes only. Jamie would love to expand their physical involvement, but Julie refuses. She aggravates the situation by having random sex with guys whom she does not particularly like. However, she is glad to give Jamie useful tips-like demonstrating how a guy walks holding a cigarette.
The events of 20th Century Women do not comprise a plot so much as a series of anecdotes strung together, recreating a period in time. Although Jamie figures significantly in the goings-on, Dorothea is the central character of this film.
She is a marvelously inconsistent creature. Just look at her lifestyle- taking boarders in her 1905 house (under continual renovation) while also working as a draftsperson. She chain-smokes Salems, considering them healthier than other cigarettes. Although she seems to appreciate current trends, her musical tastes are firmly rooted in the 1940s (especially if the songs were used in Casablanca). Do not bothering arguing, either. This free spirit will argue you down or ignore you.
Thanks to Bening’s lived-in performance, these quirks and tics are as much a part of Dorothea as her tousled hair. Bening manages the difficult task of making a reserved character accessible to the viewer. She is ably assisted by Crudup, Gerwig, and Fanning. Zumann’s character is a bit on the passive side, but he makes the most of the opportunities at hand.
Mills’ script is sharp and true to the period. He has created a poignant love letter to the mother he didn’t quite know. It should resonate with mothers and sons everywhere.
Theme: Autobiographical Films
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