Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 14, 2017 4:41 pm 
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"Now it's 1979 and nothing means anything"

With time off in 2007 for a documentary about depression in Japan, Mike Mills has now made three coming-of-age films. First came Thumbsucker (2005), adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn. Beginners (2010) focused on his father; the son is 38. 20th Century Women turns to his mother, and takes place a good twenty years earlier in the main character's life.

It may be that my favorite is Thumbsucker, but 20th Century Women goes down easier than its predecessor. Beginners had a depressed, aimless 38-year-old main character who was constantly upstaged by flashbacks to the short happy gay life of his father, who came out as a homosexual late in life, had a ball for a few years, then died of cancer. This time it's Mom - Dorothea, who's the center of the boy's world. He's called Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and he's only 15. Dorothea, played by the wonderful Annette Benning, is 55. It's 1979. She's going to kick off in 20 years from cancer, from all the smoking she does. The movie keeps priming us with dates, ages and age-spans. They take the place of an aggressive sense of period and dramatize the filmmaker's sense of his own relationship to the times he's describing. It also may help make up for the lack of a story line. The protagonist in both movies is a slow developer - maybe because he doesn't do much of anything.

Dorothea was born in the twenties; she grew up in the Depression, when people helped each other, Jamie repeatedly says. They live in a large old house in Santa Barbara in need of many repairs. William (Billy Crudup), a hippie mechanic and handyman (as well as serial seducer), rents one of the rooms, and pays partly with carpentry. Another lodger is Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punkish photographer. Also on hand, because it's the Seventies, and this is a loose, undefinable menage, is Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), who frequently climbs in the window of Jamie's room, and sleeps - really sleeps - with him. Sex will spoil the friendship, she says. Later, he says he can fix that. But do they have sex?

There is, anyway, plenty of talk of sex, and also of music. Because somebody - I guess Abbie - likes The Talking Heads, outsiders paint "Art Fag" on one side of Dorothea's "new" VW Bug (replacing her ex-husband's Ford Galaxy, which caught fire in a parking lot) and "Black Flag" (a southern California punk band of the time) on the other. Home pregnancy tests are in their infancy, so to speak. Jamie helps Julie take one; she sleeps around. William just falls into sex, and does so with Abbie, for a while.

Since she grew up in the Depression, when people helped each other, Dorothea enlists Abbie and Julie (who's a couple years older and a lot wiser, maybe, than Jamie) to clue Jamie in to things, in lieu of "man" talk, which she thinks not necessary. For Abbie, this means cluing him in to feminism, and she gives him copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, and he does take to these, and seems to thrive on them. It's all this mood that leads to a discussion of clitoral orgasm at the dinner table when guests are present.

Being from another era Dorothea sometimes objects, but she's also firmly independent and tries to be open - while admitting at times that her life has turned out to be flatter than she wants Jamie's to be. He thinks she accepts being lonely.

These situations are much dwelt upon, and not unenjoyably. But not so very much happens. The movie is punctuated by little jokes, like the far-fetched excuses Jamie turns in for cutting school; working for the Sandinistas and being in a small plane accident are examples. Music happens. There's a record player. And everybody goes out to hear a punk band. Jamie runs off one time up the coast with Julie, taking the VW (it still has the graffiti on it), and then he disappears - temporarily. To deal with this crisis, Dorothea drives up with Jamie and Abbie, in Jamie's rebuilt 1949 Chevy. Jamie always has his skateboard. You rarely see him riding it. He's too busy talking to these ladies. Once he lectures another boy on clitoral orgasm. Bad idea. He gets beaten up.

There is fear of aimlessness or a life unfulfilled but this time there is no depression. And - this is pleasant - everyone is nice. There are no tantrums, there's no violence. Mills has kept the cuteness and tweeness down more than last time - less influence of his wife Miranda July, though he has admitted he's still trying to impress her. There are just the constant voiceover warnings and explanations of what's going on, and what's to come. Dorothea tells Abbie she will get to see Jamie out in the world; she never will. Is this because she will always be his mother? Some of Mills' wisdom is elusive. Why, one wonders in retrospect, is there no mention of Jamie's father - if he was somewhere around, and would become central in a decade or so?

The present action ends with Jimmy Carter's inexplicable "Crisis of Confidence" speech, listened to by a big group. That's the end of him, someone says. The greatest thing about the times distantly referenced is how little they impinge on the rambling, crumbling house in Santa Barbara, allowing Dorothea, Jamie, Abbie, William, and Julie to talk to each other, and to us.

The life lessons, voice-over, are frequently banal. "So Sweetie, I don't know if we ever figure our lives out. And. . the people who help you - they might not be who you thought . . . or wanted." More showing and less telling, please.

It's obvious to say this is Annette Benning's film, and it is. But she gets first rate support. Greta Gerwig avoids any of her former mannerisms, and with her cropped hair "dyed in blood" (as Lane put it in The New Yorker) looks different from before too. Elle Fanning and Billy Crudup are good. Young newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann makes it all look easy. He is fun to watch. But no more fun than Annette. Mills still jazzes things up too much here, again; Lane points out the unnecessary visuals, the jittery speeded-up footage, the cars on the Pacific Coast Highway processed into a chromatic blur. But not as much as before, and these people are easier to take than last time.

20th Century Women, 118 mins., debuted 8 Oct. at New York, half a dozen other festivals, mostly domestic, limited US release 28 Dec. 2016. Wider US release 20 Jan. 2017.

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