It’s the latest fictionalised memoir from writer-director Mike Mills, whose last feature Beginners (which told the story of his father, who came out as gay at the age of 75) paved the way for Jill Soloway’s critically acclaimed TV series Transparent.
In 20th Century Women, Mills focuses on his mother, Dorothea, delightfully portrayed by Bening as a smart, quirky, chain-smoking non-conformist living in a hippy-tastic, rundown Victorian villa in Santa Barbara with her son, Jamie.
In a move that belies her desire to maintain control while appearing to let go of her teenage boy, she asks 20-something Abbie (who rents a room in their rambling house) and precocious teen Julie (a close friend of her son’s) to help Jamie move out into the wider world.
The younger women impart the information they feel Jamie needs: Julie (Elle Fanning) tells him how a man should hold a cigarette, how a man should walk; Abbie (Greta Gerwig) introduces him to punk music and the latest feminist texts. Dorothea hovers anxiously in the background, stepping in when she feels things are heading in the wrong direction.
There’s no definitive plot: this is “slice of life” stuff and it’s largely sliced out of one summer in 1979. It was the year Jimmy Carter made his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech and its inclusion in the film is pertinent: “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”
How uncomfortably this must echo in the present-day US.
The Koyaanisqatsi-esque aerial shots of ocean and city, the trippy refracted light that etches the road trip footage and the layering of historic video and photographs give the film a visually compelling edge that reflects the atmosphere of the era and the excitement of burgeoning adulthood.
The wonderful soundtrack (Roger Neill) works the same magic: the punkish screams of Devo and The Banshees clash perfectly with the dreamy ponderings of Talking Heads and illustrate the wild frustrations of a teenager bucking the system while philosophically musing on the meaning(lessness) of life.
A movie scrapbook of late ’70s zeitgeist with comfortable characters, subtle political undertones and lots of funny moments.
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