Coming of age drama set in the 1970’s in America, a fifty something mother of a teenage boy is having trouble teaching her son how to be a man. It’s the first generation where the absentee Father has become a thing and the minds of parents and children are open like at no other time in history. The Mothers solution to the problem is to ask the people who rent rooms in her large house to help give the boy a rudder on how to make his way through the world.
Annette Benning in The American President is one of those performances that will always stay with me, she will forever be Sydney Ellen Wade to me. It was such a classy, intelligent and yet ditsy performance, I feel like my Dad now when talking about that film, saying ‘They don’t make films like that any more!’
Here she is once again giving one of the best performances that you’ll see from a female performer this year. Here she plays Dorothea, who is recently separated from her husband and the father to Jamie. They live in an old house that is being refurbished by one of her renters. Jamie is trying to come to terms with growing up with the absent father that we never see and his friendship with his unrequited love Julie is messing with his head. Julie is sexually free, about a year older than Jamie, and sleeps every night beside Jamie. The other influence in Jamie’s life is Abbie, a cancer survivor, who lives in that constant fear of the cancer returning.
The amazing thing here in 20th Century Women is that all the main characters are fully fleshed out and explored, we hear from each of them in turn. We venture to and fro through their lives through the film and it gives you an actual caring for the characters that you don’t get in many movies, a sad state of affairs. But it’s not just the script with draws you in, and the performances which make you care, the setting of the late 70’s and the way the costuming and set decorations nails the feeling of the time. The soundtrack is a mix of the music from Dorothea’s childhood, the big band music of the 20’s and 30’s to the music that is breaking through in the 70’s. This mix of music offers the film makers something different and fits in perfectly.
The only problem I have with the film is Greta Gerwig, she’s a fine performer, but for some reason she has this one level of performance through the majority of her films and cannot seem to rise above it. Her role of Abbie is severely typical of the roles that she has played in the past. The role is well written and executed with the ease of slipping on a comfortable pair of PJ’s at the end of a long day, but nothing about this role challenges Ms. Gerwig. Where as for Annette Benning the role challenges her and she rises high above the bar. Playing a woman who is trying to come to terms with having, for the time, a child late in life, and trying to raise a man in the free loving time of the 70’s. She doesn’t just want to be a Mother but a Friend. Elle Fanning continues her rise to stardom with a steady performance as the girl who has friend zoned Jamie. While Billy Crudup plays the mechanic come carpenter that lives in the house. Playing Jamie is Lucas Jade Zumann who is a breath of fresh air and you can honestly feel the frustration of his character dealing with the mixed messages that life is throwing at him.
There are some that will label 20th Century Women as a chick flick, but that term is tossed around too much and with great disservice to some films. This is a comedy and drama set in the 70’s with a sparkling script that entertains throughout. It won’t be for everyone, but it was for me, just sit back and enjoy it.
Director: Mike Mills
Writer: Mike Mills
Stars: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig