A teenage boy and his mother in 1979 Santa Monica. Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a divorcee who has lost touch with her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and herself. 20th Century Women is filled with probing screenwriting, an adept use of mise-en-scene, and stimulating effects.
Screenwriter and director, Mike Mills, handles a risky balancing act between motifs. The first consideration in any story is the setting. Mills sets his in 1979. The heart of the culture wars, and the height of Punk. Next, he considers his characters. The mother is from the depression. She has her son at age 40. She’s old enough to be his grandmother. Mills could have chosen any era, but imagine a woman from the depression going into a coma, only to wake-up in the middle of the punk movement. Generational gap engaged.
Mills is interested in the use of landscape and area. The home of Bening and Zumann is a dilapidated house being remodeled by William (Billy Crudup, who looks like Russell Hammond in his Bob Dylan Woodstock faze), the only major male figure in the film. For a movie about an older woman, and a “broken” family,” attempting to rebuild itself, the revitalized house is symbolism to the extreme. Check mark for the mise-en-scene.
Meanwhile, Zumann is confronting the never ending male phase of, well, horniness. He’s in love with his best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), and most of the scenes that occupy the two are set in the woods. The twirling strangling trees signify the youth, and the random and confusing paths life can take when one has the rest of their days ahead of them. Zumann and Fanning are a classic of case of, “let’s just be friends.” With every moment Fanning sneaks into Bening’s house to sleep in Zumann’s bed without a promise of sex, is a moment Zumann is emasculated.
They are all joined by Abbie (Greta Gerwig). 20th Century Women is the continuation of the rising star that is Gerwig (check Jackie). Gerwig plays a photographic punk who fulfills the proto-big-sister role to Zumann.
The three women who surround Zumann are in different stages of their life, Bening near retirement, Fanning a teenager, and Gerwig approaching middle age, but all three have lived long enough to be used by men. Bening is a divorced mother who has decided she can do without a man for companionship. Fanning has been sometimes used purely for sex. While Gerwig was abandoned by her boyfriend when it was found that she had cervical cancer. Bening, in fear that her son is slipping away from her, and hasn’t learned what it means to be a man, enlists Gerwig and Fanning to help rear him.
This education is brought about by literature and music. Zumann is given hardcore feminist text and taken to punk shows. In West Wing style, the explanation of the literature is the bridge toward greater character understanding. Works such as, Judy Blume’s Forever, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, etc. are done through voice over, a technique that plays a central role. Every character is given a voice-over to explain their origins and their fate, which is a nice directorial shorthand in storytelling, and creates a film of memories.
Mills is interested in movement. Many of the movements, some include dancing, are broken into stop-motion jagged cuts, as if you’re watching a Charlie Chaplin film. Crudup and Bening sneak into Jamie’s room and play the Talking Heads, while they do psychedelic rain dance (all part of Bening visiting punk shows to understand her son’s generation). Sometimes black-and-white footage and photography is interspersed as slide shows to demonstrate a moment or concept, typically in each character’s origin story. Once again, great directorial shorthand. And often, cars are given psychedelic rainbow as they whiz by. Each focus on movement is an identifying of time and the usage of memory. One’s memory is rarely clear. It’s often in snapshots or a rush. Or the remembrance of a song. Bening listens to “A Kiss is Just a Kiss,” while Zumann loosely and jangly dances to the Raincoats. Another generational gap.
Still, everyone in the film, in the currents of their memory are suffering from a “Crisis of Confidence.” As Bening packs away each cigarette, as Zumann pounds his feet to the ground, Gerwig photographs every object in her life, Fanning sulks in a corner, and Crudup meditates about those around him, all are trying to turn the disorder and finite quality of life into order. No scene bears this out more than Bening and Zumann standing in the manicured groves of crops. Both in nature. But an orderly nature. Both finally seeing eye-to-eye. If 20th Century Women had come along three weeks ago, it would probably be vying for more Oscar noms. than it may get, especially Mills. Yet, as Bening and Zumann drive-up the California coast at movie’s end, it’s clear that nothing changes, everything changes, and as the sun shines down on them for the briefest of minutes, such is life….
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