Mike Mills’ movie, “Twentieth Century Women”, is the perfect movie to capture what this decade of over-scheduling mothers has lost~ that “go with the flow” feeling. Mills as writer/director and graphic artist perfectly captures the late seventies when we understood that being in perfect life-control was an illusion.
Annette Bening completely inhabits her role as Dorothea Fields, a single mother with a budding, teenage son ( Lucas Zumann). Her easy live-in-the-moment style as boarding-house matron is challenged by her anxiety over providing what her son Jaime may need. His rebelliousness in forging creative excuses to skip school being one danger sign. He hands in a note that says he is doing volunteer work for the Sandinistas. She asks for help from her two tenants: Abby (Greta Gerwig ) and William ( Billy Crudup). Julie ( Elle Fanning) adds to the commune by frequently sleeping platonically with Jaime. This is a paen to beautiful eccentricity. ( Cynthia, Caroline, Sheila~ I thought of you.) We have lost that ” live in the moment” vitality by over-planning.
Billy Crudup, as William, would be seen as a slacker in today’s age. “Why doesn’t he start his own renovation company? ” , a 2017 entrepreneur might ask. His hunky looks and hippie sensitivity remind me of a few men from my past. He makes his own shampoo, and no doubt his own candles. One of my favorite scenes is where he attempts to show Dorothea how to meditate.
Nostalgic as this film may be for some, it brings to question the idea that success at any cost will disappoint. Self-interest has its limits for happiness. Raising a child takes the village, and communal aid should be offered as support. While never preachy, “Twentieth-Century Women” holds up these values. Losing them is not a good idea.
The cinematography is quirky in this film, often a frame within a frame. The interior sets with backdrops of colorfully painted walls show Dorothea’s bohemian flair. The initial aerial shot of teal green tidal pools is as unusual as the almost animated, hand-colored VW beetles zooming the winding roads of Santa Barbara. Director Mills was a graphic artist and it shows.
Bening seems effortless inhabiting Dorothea ~ wearing Birkenstocks, chain-smoking Salems, and exhibiting Mother Earth flair. She invites everyone to dinner. Her voiceovers pick up the details of the day. She has read ” Watership Down” and hyperventilated in ecstasy when President Jimmy Carter gave his ” Crisis of Confidence” speech. She is delightful to watch.
Elle Fanning is the scaffold-climbing Julie. The daughter of a therapist mother, Julie likes to play therapy like Jeopardy. Bening delivers an understated, ” Do you know that you are not actually a therapist?” with witty aplomb. Again, she is delightful to watch.
Greta Gerwig is Abby, a punkish feminist who introduces ” Our Bodies Ourselves” and Scott Peck’s glimmerings to her housemates. She is being treated for cervical cancer and occupies herself with photographing artistic shots of her few possessions. Again, Bening is terrific as she chastises Abby for feeding her son hardcore feminism that is just too much for him.
Lucas Zumann is a sweet Jaime. He explains away most of his mother’s ideas and actions by saying that she was a Depression baby. He routinely checks the stock markets with her. He worries that she is depressed and wishes to foist him off on others. He wishes her to be happier. Dorothea helps him bleach his hair and metaphorically practices breathing in and letting go. She laments that only others get to see her son out in the world as a person.
Dance and music interweave with the small details of boardinghouse life. Voiceovers tell us what becomes of each character. This is truly a 1970’s film. Nothing much happens but the flow of life, and that is enough.