A mother enlists the aid of her boarding house residents in raising her teenage son.
Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: Mike Mills
Starring: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig
'It takes a village to raise a child'; so goes the old African proverb. In writer-director Mike Mills' 1979 set love letter to both his own mother and mothers everywhere, 20th Century Women, the 'child' is 15-year-old Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann), while the village consists of his single mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), and a trio of hangers on she enlists to aid her in raising her son.
Feeling Jamie requires a strong male figure in his life, Dorothea initially approaches her lodger, William (Billy Crudup), who with his bushy moustache and hairy chest is a poster boy for '70s masculinity. William declines the offer, subtly chiding Dorothea for her outdated views - "Do you really need a man to raise a man?"
This causes Dorothea to turn to the other two female figures in Jamie's life: her second lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punky photographer whose extravagant appearance is offset by a lack of confidence and worry over the impending news concerning her cervical cancer, and 17-year-old Julie (Elle Fanning), a promiscuous teen whose relationship with Jamie seems to be the only non-sexual one she commits to (something the film commendably refuses to judge), much to his frustration. While Dorothea approaches Abbie and Julie for their help, she's really using it as a way of playing mother herself to a pair of young women she feels could use some direction and distraction.
Much is made of the generation gap between Dorothea and her son. A child of the Great Depression, her teen years might as well have occurred four centuries before Jamie's, and Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman conduct a sonic battle for dominance with Talking Heads and Devo in the halls of the boarding house. An equal time gap exists between the film's setting and our own age, and the choice of 1979 is far from arbitrary. When choosing to portray a past era, most filmmakers will opt for the middle of a decade (John Carney's Sing Street, for example, is set in a mythical version of 1985 that represents the '80s as a condensed whole), but Mills is more concerned with the end of this particular era. A key scene gathers the protagonists as they watch Jimmy Carter deliver his infamous 'crisis of confidence' speech - "He's so fucked," William exclaims - and the casual attitude to sex dovetails dangerously close with the impending advent of AIDS. When Jamie receives a beating from a macho schoolboy - the result of a debate over the importance of clitoral stimulation, one of Abbie's life lessons for the young man - it's a signal of things to come for America.
As you might expect from such a period piece, 20th Century Women's soundtrack is filled with deep cuts from the New Wave era, but Mills also populates his film's aural landscape with the literature of the day, with passages from novels and essays read in voiceover to aid in establishing a sense of time and place, the title and author credits appearing onscreen as though they were music videos on MTV (back in the day, MTV showed music videos; crazy right?). At one point, footage from Godfrey Reggio's seminal Koyaanisqatsi plays, Mills using it to create mood in much the same way as a needle drop of Devo's 'Gut Feeling'. It's a strikingly audacious moment, similar to Tarantino's use of a clip from Hitchcock's Sabotage in Inglorious Basterds.
20th Century Women is a collage of culture, but the nostalgia for a lost era takes a backseat to another type of nostalgia, one based in blood, that of Mills' feelings for his late mother. A career best Bening is the heart of the movie, portrayed as an angelic figure, but one with very grounded, human concerns. If Mills is like the average Anglo-Saxon male, he likely never knew his mother when she was alive - we sadly never do, not really - but I'm sure she would be proud of his cinematic tribute to her influence. Mrs Mills, you raised a good one.
20th Century Women is in UK/ROI cinemas February 10th.