Michel Foucault made his bones with the theory of the Panopticon, in which people learn to cope with constant surveillance by instinctually altering their behavior. It’s in that frame of mind that Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) operates in Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women. Jamie certainly doesn’t live under duress. His mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), loves him. So much so that she fears for his development as a man (he is fatherless and 15 years old) that Jamie has begun to fold into himself. As Dorothea ruminates: “I’ll never get to see my son in the world.”
That’s just a function of being 15, though, dad or no dad. Nevertheless, Dorothea dispatches Jamie’s best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), and a punk rock, twenty-something tenant, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), to help him learn how to be a good man. There is also William (Billy Crudup), the live-in handyman, but he doesn’t seem to have too many answers.
This is the kind of setup you might expect from a writer-director like Mills. He is a filmmaker who creates characters who inhabit worlds filled with the ennui of comfortable, upper-middle class living. His previous film, Beginners, was about a man who was simply incapable of happiness, living in a state of constant depression over the fact that he barely knew his father, who came out of the closet at 75, concurrently with a terminal diagnosis.
20th Century Women is sunnier than that, literally. It is set in 1979 Santa Barbara, when the world was coming off of a cataclysmic cultural shift and heading towards another one. Mills seems to feel that moment in time in his bones: he was right around Jamie’s age. In this case, if the film feels more bummed-out than it should, you can attribute that to the protagonist’s adolescence.
My reservations about the characters’ unexamined privilege aside, this is a movie that deeply, fundamentally understands its characters in a way that few others do. When Julie sleeps with Jamie at night, but refuses to have sex with him, it’s not borne out of withholding malice. She simply wants connection that she can’t find with the other boys she does have sex with. Dorothea panics about disconnecting from her son, but he is legitimately slipping away from her. This is just how life goes.
You can tell a cast is talented when you feel comfortable referring to them by their characters’ names instead of their own. Bening, peerless among her generation—her batting average exceeds that of Meryl Streep—turns in yet another excellent, intuitive performance. Fanning, Gerwig and Crudup delight in lovely supporting roles. The breakout star of the film is easily Zumann, who just is this mixed-up teenager (there’s a tautology for you). There are no too-smart-by-half, child actor quips coming from him. He is deadpan, sarcastic, and unimpressed with the immensity of warmth and love emanating from his mother. No kid can appreciate that in the moment.
Given the broad, generational sweep implied by the title, it’s hard not to feel that 20th Century Women is a slighter film than it thinks it is. Mills certainly swings for the fences, punctuating key scenes with the birth years of the women of the main cast, as if to establish that what is to follow is emblematic of females their age. These characters are drawn to be specific individuals, not ciphers intended to represent a cross-section of late mid-century America. I may be reading outsize intentions into the film where none may exist, but it’s not for lack of trying on Mills’ part. At one point Jamie tells his mother that he isn’t “all men”, to which she replies, “Well, yes and no”, as if to settle the matter. Does Mills think his characters represent all women? Yes, I believe he thinks so, and no, they don’t.
I appreciate Mills’s attempts to be more ambitious as a filmmaker. Beginners was so profoundly personal as nearly to suffocate under its own moroseness. He expands his repertoire as a filmmaker considerably with 20th Century Women, using slow zooms and a minutely gliding camera to give a sense of stability and composure to his cinematic world. The period details are impeccable, matching an era that didn’t mind when a home felt lived-in and used. His characters are intelligent and urbane, but don’t speak as if they have a volume of Voltaire in their pocket. By expanding the size of his cast and giving them plenty of shared screen time, we don’t feel so locked in to the claustrophobic mind of his other film’s protagonist. These are characters that don’t just need to be around other people, but are good at being around other people.
As Mills makes more films, he will, with any luck, understand that his strengths lie in writing characters as people, not as ambassadors of their respective generations. Let’s hope his Oscar nomination pushes him in that direction.
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