'20th Century Women' Mixes Comedy With Disappointment And Loss

Jan 12, 2017
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This is FRESH AIR. "20th Century Women" is the new movie by Mike Mills, whose previous film, "Beginners," won Christopher Plummer an Academy Award. Loosely based on Mills' own life, "20th Century Women" is the story of a teenage boy who learns about life from three women - a high school friend, an artistic lodger and his mother, played by Annette Bening in a performance that's being touted for an Oscar. The film's opening around the country, and our critic-at-large John Powers says it's a fun movie that hits you where you live.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Hollywood has always had trouble capturing how history enters our lives. It's able to celebrate landmark cases like the three African-American heroines of "Hidden Figures," whose mathematical brilliance helped break the color bar at NASA in the late '50s and early '60s. But when it comes to ordinary, undramatic life, our movies struggle with what it means to be born into a particular time and place whose values shape and constrain us.

An exception is "20th Century Women," the wonderful new movie by Mike Mills that's the sort of delicate, amusing, deeply-felt work that tends to get lost in the film industry's avalanche of year-end releases. Where Mills' last film, "Beginners," fictionalized his father's story, this new one fictionalizes his intimate relationship with his mother. In showing his debt to her, he creates a world that gets deep inside you, one filled with complicated female characters who feel like women you actually know.

The action takes place in a 1979 Santa Barbara that's bathed in the afterglow of free love and women's liberation. Lucas Jade Zumann plays the narrator, Jamie, a bright, awkward teenager who's being raised by his mom, Dorothea. That's Annette Bening, a nurturing career woman with whom each morning he goes over the newspaper prices of her stock market investments. They share the house with two lodgers - Abbie, a punk-loving photographer nicely played by Greta Gerwig, and William, a shambly, quietly sexy '60s-style handyman - played with perfect pitch by Billy Crudup - who's helping fix up Dorothea's sprawling old house.

Dorothea is at once a cool mom and an anxiously thoughtful one. We see her take Jimmy Carter's famous malaise speech to heart. Worried about her son getting an education in life, she enlists the help of both Abbie and Jamie's friend and crush Julie - that's Elle Fanning - an alluring, Judy Blume-reading girl who's more mature and independent than he is. Julie cares about Jamie, too, but - and I've been there, dude - she prefers to sleep with the sexier boys she doesn't care about.

Here, Dorothea sees Julie dash Jamie's romantic hopes at a party. And when he sees that his mom has seen it he gets upset, and they wind up talking while washing dishes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "20TH CENTURY WOMEN")

LUCAS JADE ZUMANN: (As Jamie) Stop.

ANNETTE BENING: (As Dorothea) What?

LUCAS: (As Jamie) Thinking that you know everything that's going on.

BENING: (As Dorothea) No, I don't - I just think that, you know, having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.

LUCAS: (As Jamie) Do you think you're happy? Like, as happy as you thought you'd be when you were my age?

BENING: (As Dorothea) Seriously? You don't ask people questions like that.

LUCAS: (As Jamie) But you're my mom.

BENING: (As Dorothea, laughter) Especially your mom. Look, wondering if you're happy, it's a great shortcut to just being depressed.

POWERS: "20th Century Women" is filled with intimate scenes whose comedy is suffused with disappointment and loss. Yet what makes it even richer is Mills' distinctive way of anchoring small revealing moments in a bigger picture. For instance, Jamie tells us, my mom was born in 1924. And he then sketches in the world his mother grew up in using a collage of images that includes everything from the Great Depression to Bogart movies to the subservient position of women. While Dorothea dreams of being a World War II pilot, it's impossible, and she winds up working on blueprints for airplanes. Greatly assisted by Bening's magnificently lived-in performance, Mills reveals the shape of Dorothea's whole life as a supportive mother and square-peg proto-feminist who yearned for more and was capable of it.

Yet even as he gives us this bird's-eye view of his characters' lives, Mills has a keen eye for the often funny talismanic details that give our experiences resonance and texture. We see a paperback copy of Robin Morgan's legendary 1970 anthology "Sisterhood Is Powerful," which helps Jamie understand his mother's life story, not to mention the female orgasm. And we see a Talking Heads T-shirt that's one of those pop identifiers by which modern Americans define themselves in relation to their exact cultural moment.

Because this movie's moment is 1979 California, right before the great shift in values of the Reagan era, all its characters are seeking freedom and self-expression. Mills shows us the world changing before our eyes, especially in its ideas about womanhood. From Dorothea to Abbie to the teenage Julie, each gets a bit closer to being able to define her own life. And importantly, Jamie learns the value of that. Without ever being pretentious about it, "20th Century Women" suggests that their search for freedom helped create things we really like about our 21st century world.

DAVIES: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like my interviews with Jeff Bridges and sportscaster Joe Buck, or Terry's interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, check out our podcast, where you'll find plenty of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Roberta Shorrock, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER NEILL'S "SANTA BARBARA, 1979") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.