DVD Review - 20th Century Women

Writer-director Mike Mills has made the spiritual sequel to his Oscar-winning feature Beginners (2010), a semi-autobiographical film about his father who came out as gay while an elderly widow. This film is also semi-autobiographical but this time Mills is painting a fictionalized version of his mother who doesn't have a particularly interesting or unique story to tell. She's just a regular woman living at the middle of a changing century.

Mills' dad coming out as gay late in life is an interesting and unique story. His mom doesn't have that. As presented here, she has a pretty uneventful life. The main thrust is the relationship between her and her son, mixed with the her son's interactions with two other females, as we quasi-watch his teenage maturation. The characters in question have potential and deal with issues specific to women but the whole thing is rather inert and not compelling enough to justify its existence.

Mills opens with a compelling image to kick off his film with a hook that could have been a great metaphor. It's the image of a car in Santa Barbara, California, 1979, and that car is completely engulfed in flames. Was it just a freak accident or the result of some negligence or possibly malice? It is perhaps meant to be indicative of how Mills' mom, or the fictionalized version of her named Dorothea Fields, played by Annette Bening (American Beauty and The Kids Are All Right), deals with problems or treats things that could be problems. She's more or less hands off. She's not much of a disciplinarian and when it comes to raising her teenage son, she basically passes the buck.

Mills utilizes techniques from Beginners and expands them unnecessarily. He starts with dual narration from mother and son. This establishes early that the story is going to share perspectives between parent and child. This is a departure from Beginners, which limited itself to the child's perspective. Thankfully, that perspective was an adult-child, but the perspective of the parent got lost in Beginners. Here, Mills corrects that, but unfortunately he does so with a character who doesn't have a particularly interesting or unique story to tell.

There's nothing wrong with Mills doing a character-study about a woman who led a boring or uneventful life. The narration toward the end reveal that the time period depicted in this film was in various ways the end of an era. Dorothea in that regard stood on the precipice of that era and was open to the next one but often didn't understand or fully embrace it. Her struggle with that is present, but Mills doesn't make as much out of that as he could have.

Instead, Mills diverts attention to two women who aren't his mom but who live with his mom. Lucas Jade Zumann plays Jamie, the teenage boy who is Mills' proxy. Elle Fanning plays Julie Hamlin, the fellow teenage girl with whom Jamie wants to have sex but she'd rather sleep with everyone else but not him. Greta Gerwig plays Abbie Porter, a photographer who survived cervical cancer and who now is a staunch feminist pushing her ideology openly. While Jamie's interactions with Julie and Abbie might be true to Mills' life, they feel like diversions.

Billy Crudup plays William, a handyman who is constantly at the house who has an interest in Dorothea. Besides being a male grown-up for Dorothea to talk with, William feels like a distraction as well. For example, Dorothea has a moment at the end when she's flying a plane. Aside from narration announcing her love of flying, her enjoyment of it seems unearned because we never see her doing anything otherwise that would indicate her love of planes. It's an empty callback.

Mills incorporates narration as if he's making a documentary. He'll insert archival footage and still pictures as if he's Ken Burns. When it comes to the lives of the various women, especially Dorothea, Mills rattles off statistics and facts about them, almost as if he's crafting an objective, news report, except that Mills' reports are too emotionally detached, so much so that they don't help to connect to Dorothea.

Bening's performance does compensate, but there's a hollowness in Mills' construction of the whole thing. I'm not sure we get as close to these people as one would like. In the end, I didn't care about the lustful desires of a white, teenage boy, if only because teens and sex is too common a topic in film going back 30 or 40 years.

Rated R for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.


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