The Victorian house featured prominently in Mike Mills’ new film, 20th Century Women, might serve as a metaphor for its inhabitants, a rumpled mis-matched group with great potential but still works in progress. Mills, who previously gave us Beginners, a film based on his father coming out gay at age 75 (Read the review), now tells us about his mother, played by a radiant Annette Bening.
Like Mills’ mother, Janet, Bening’s Dorothea Fields works as a draftsperson, but the film centers around the ramshackled home where she lives with her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and her tenants, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who earns his rent by working on the house. A frequent visitor is Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend who, dodging her therapist-mom, often comes over to sleep in his bedroom, but insists on keeping their relationship platonic.
Lucas Jade Zumann and Annette Bening
Set in Santa Barbara, California, in 1979, the film looks back on the hippie-era 70s. There’s great attention to details, from the cars, including the Ford Galaxy that catches fire at the beginning of the film, and the aging VW defaced with graffiti, to the clothing, the Birkenstocks worn by Dorothea, and the hot pants worn by Abbie. Drives along California’s winding highways are lit up in psychedelic colors.
Dorothea is a free spirit, but where her son is concerned, she’s a control freak. When he participates in a crazy stunt which renders him unconscious for 30 minutes, she’s distraught and draws the net even tighter. Jamie responds by taking off with friends for a night in Los Angeles. Dorothea waits up, her black and white cat curled by her side, until he comes home safely.
While Dorothea purports to be a hands-on parent, she worries that Jamie, being raised without a father, needs other influences in his life. Yet she makes the bizarre move to enlist, not William, but the team of Abbie and Julie to help raise her son. Both women are handling their own problems. Abbie, recovering from cervical cancer, is told she probably won’t be able to have children. Julie has unprotected sex in the back of a car and worries she might be pregnant. Still, each woman takes on her assignment with a seriousness that will engage Jamie while alarming Dorothea. Abbie gives Jamie copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves with in depth discussions about a woman’s anatomy. Julie takes Jamie on an overnight trip up the coast, but he leaves their hotel room when she refuses to have sex with him.
Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, and Greta Gerwig
Dorothea has a way of rationalizing her actions. When Jamie attacks her chain-smoking, she says that she began smoking when it was romantic. When she’s challenged about not being happy, she responds: “Wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed.” Dorothea’s belongings are flashed on the screen, while Jamie in voice overs says that his mother was born in 1924, as if being a Depression era baby explains her behavior.
This is a brave, fascinating performance by Bening. She captures the contradictions in Dorothea’s personality without ever turning her into a cliché. Gerwig, her hair dyed fuchsia, literally throws herself into the role, dancing up a storm with Jamie when she takes him drinking at a club. Fanning’s Julie is a girl on the brink of womanhood who recognizes her appeal to men, but fails to see how she is torturing Jamie by keeping herself at arm’s length. As Jamie, Zumann is so natural as a 14 year old straining for more freedom, it seems like he’s not acting. Crudup, looking less buff than in previous films, seems to float in and out of the women’s lives, sleeping with Abbie, then kissing Dorothea. Although he’s the most obvious person to mentor Jamie, Dorothea rejects that idea, something that has less to do with William and everything to do with Dorothea’s views on men. She volunteers few details about her ex-husband who no longer calls her son. While she accepts a date with a co-worker, we never witness them going out.
Now that Mills has given us portraits of his father and mother, might stories of other family members follow?
Photos courtesy of A24