20TH CENTURY WOMEN (Mike Mills) 120 minutes. Opens Friday (January 13). See listing. Rating: NNNN
Mike Mills had one helluva childhood. His film Beginners, about a man whose dad comes out in late life, was true to the director’s own history. Now, in 20th Century Women, he puts the focus on his mom, a free-spirited soul who nevertheless can’t quite figure out her 15-year-old son.
The movie, set in the 70s, when women’s liberation was taking hold and punk music was raging against disco and everything else mainstream, is deliciously detailed in its representation of the period: its cars, phones and music.
Single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) lives in a ramshackle house and rents out rooms to hippie handyman William (Billy Crudup) and punk photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is in love with his friend Julie (Elle Fanning), who sneaks into his room at night – but only to sleep, much to Jamie’s disappointment.
Jamie’s relationship with his mother has been good – he reads the stock reports to her and loves that she lets him forge notes to school explaining his frequent absences – but he’s becoming more elusive and starts edging away from her. To get a grip on what’s going on with him, she enlists the help of Abbie and Julie.
The narrative is ragged and episodic, bent less on story than on character development. Dorothea is stuck with her single status and isn’t prepared to do much about it. While incessantly probing the mind of her adolescent son, she’s wholly resistant to any self-reflection of her own. You get a strong sense of the period, when women were forced to consider notions that were unimaginable just a decade before. A sequence in which Jamie reads sex info to his mother from Our Bodies, Ourselves captures the extent of the sea change that occurred in the 70s.
Gerwig – who’s becoming one of the best actors of her generation – is terrific as the fuchsia-haired artist, and Crudup is suitably goofy as the hapless handyman.
But it’s Golden Globe-nominated Bening who’s the rock-solid centre of this pic’s universe. She devours the role, nervously smoking throughout, shy in the face of her attraction to her handyman tenant and embodying steely frustration at her inability to deal with being out of control.
It’s the best work she’s done in years.