Saturday, July 22, 2017
20th Century Women
Written and directed by Mike Mills, 20th Century Women is the story of a single mother with a teenage boy who seeks the help of a teenage neighbor, a young punk artist, and a bohemian handyman in raising her son during the late 1970s. Based on Mills’ own life, the film is an exploration of a young boy coming of age as he is introduced to new things while his mother is dealing with her own role in life. Starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, and Billy Crudup. 20th Century Women is an evocative and enchanting film from Mike Mills.
Set in 1979 Santa Barbara, the film revolves around a middle-aged single mother who is having a hard time connecting with her son as she is filled with a very unconventional group of people who live or frequent at her home including a punk artist, a teenage neighbor, and a handyman. She turns to them for help while dealing with the growing changes in the modern world which she has a hard time understanding including the emergence of punk and the growing sense of turmoil in America. Mike Mills’ screenplay doesn’t just explore a mother and son dealing with growing pains but also the emergence of new cultures and new things around them with the former trying to make sense of everything while the latter is just trying to find himself. Even as both of them provide voiceover commentary and such to express not just what they’re dealing with but also what is ahead as Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) would reveal her own fate through the narration.
Dorothea’s son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is only 15 years old as he has no idea what he wants to do nor who he is as his only real friend is his neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning) who is two years older than him as she would often sneak around to sleep in his bed just to talk and sleep. Living with Dorothea and Jamie is the punk artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig) who is recovering from cervical cancer as she spends her time doing art photography and make her money as a photographer as she and Julie would help Dorothea guide Jamie into manhood. The only other man living in Dorothea’s home is the handyman William (Billy Crudup) who doesn’t have much to offer to Jamie but manages to bond with Dorothea and Abbie as he helps them in their own issues. Mills’ script doesn’t just explore these unique individuals as they’re all going through some form of existentialism but also wonder what has put them in this certain moment in their lives.
Abbie with her health and views on feminism which she introduces Jamie to while Julie copes with being sexually-active and not wanting to have sex with Jamie because she wants to be his friend. For Dorothea, she is introduced to the L.A. punk culture that Jamie and Abbie is interested in as she’s introduced to by the latter with William as well as some of things in the modern world where it’s baffling at times but also exciting such as a moment where she and William compare/contrast to the music of Black Flag and Talking Heads to see this growing division in the world of punk. There are also moments in the dialogue that play into Jamie’s growth and interest in female sexuality as it would make Dorothea uneasy. Even as she would start to know things in Jamie’s life as she ponders if she’s made the right decision in having two different women guiding him into his manhood.
Mills’ direction definitely has a flair for style in the way it uses still photographs, film clips, and other things to play into not just the many images and events of the 20th Century but also what was looming into the 21st Century as it relates to the things then-U.S. president Jimmy Carter was saying in his crisis of confidence speech as it appears during a pivotal moment in its third act. Shot mainly in Santa Barbara, California with some locations shot in Los Angeles and New York City, the film plays into this sense of change that is looming in the year of 1979 just before the arrival of Ronald Reagan, the end of punk, and the uncertainty of the Cold War. While these images and ideas are certainly prevalent throughout the film, Mills focus on the life of these five unique people who are part of this very unconventional family. Mills’ usage of the wide shots aren’t just to establish the locations but also the growing disconnect that looms throughout the film between Dorothea and Jamie as well as the former’s own detachment from the modern world.
Mills’ direction also has these very intimate moments with the close-ups and medium shots as it play into Jamie’s relationship with Julie as well as the scene of Dorothea and William listening to Abbie’s punk records. Mills’ compositions are quite precise in the way he would put the actors in a frame while having a looseness in some of the scenes involving the punk shows. There are also these entrancing moments of scenes set on the road or Jamie on his skateboard as it play into everyone trying to find their own paths in life. Mills would also infuse elements that are quite surreal in the road scenes as well as these touching moments that showcase Dorothea’s own sense of nostalgia for the 1940s as well as her own sense of hope for Jamie when he becomes an adult. Overall, Mills crafts a touching yet majestic film about a middle-aged single mother trying to find some help to guide her teenage son into manhood.
Cinematographer Sean Porter does brilliant work with the film’s beautiful and colorful cinematography to capture the natural look of the daytime exterior scenes to the usage of low-key lights for some of the interior scenes at night. Editor Leslie Jones does excellent work with the editing with its usage of jump-cuts and montages that help play into the sense of time that the characters are dealing with. Production designer Christopher Jones, with set decorators Tracy Spadorica and Neil Wyzanowski, does fantastic work with the look of the house that Dorothea and Jamie live in as they’re trying to restore with William as well as their bedrooms that display their personalities. Costume designer Jennifer Johnson does nice work with the clothes as it is mostly casual to play into the look of the characters without deviating too much into certain styles that was so prominent in the late 1970s.
Visual effects supervisor Patrick Murphy does terrific work with a few of the film’s visual effects which is mainly for the driving scenes as it has this air of surrealism. Sound designer Frank Gaeta does superb work with the sound as it play into the way some of the music is presented as well as how certain sounds are captured naturally for some of the scenes at the house. The film’s music by Roger Neill is amazing as it is mainly this hypnotic ambient score that play into the sense of the unknown that the characters are embarking while music supervisor Howard Paar creates a mixture of music from the 40s such as big-band music from Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Fred Astaire, & Rudy Vallee as well as some of the music of the late 1970s from Devo, the Germs, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Clash, David Bowie, Black Flag, Talking Heads, the Raincoats, the Buzzcocks, and Suicide.
The casting by Laura Rosenthal and Mark Bennett is great as it feature some notable small roles from Finn Roberts as a classmate of Jamie who despises Talking Heads, Allison Elliott as Julie’s mother, Thea Gill as Abby’s mother in a flashback, Waleed Zuaiter as a co-worker of Dorothea in Charlie, Darrell Britt-Gibson as the punk club bouncer Julian, and Alia Shawkat as a young woman Jamie meets at the punk club named Trish. Billy Crudup is brilliant as William as a bohemian handyman that is very good in making pots and fixing things as he talks frequently with Abbie and Dorothea about his failings with women while being a good listener for the two. Elle Fanning is amazing as Julie as a 17-year old high school student who is Jamie’s best friend as she copes with her growing pains and dealing with having sex as she doesn’t want sex to ruin her friendship with Jamie.
Greta Gerwig is excellent as Abbie as a punk photographer/artist who is trying to find herself as she also copes with the aftermath of her cervical cancer as well as introduce Jamie to ideas of feminism that causes some issues with Dorothea. Lucas Jade Zumann is fantastic as Jamie as a fifteen-year old kid dealing with growing pains and his own identity as well as try to understand his mother while exploring the world of punk rock and feminism in the hopes he can become a good man. Finally, there’s Annette Bening in an incredible performance as Dorothea Fields as a woman in her fifties that is dealing with a world that is ever-changing as she understands why she is disconnected from her son while wanting to explore the modern world as it’s a performance filled with humility but also some joy and realism as it’s one of Bening’s finest performances of her career.
20th Century Women is a phenomenal film from Mike Mills. Featuring a great ensemble cast, an incredible music score and soundtrack, gorgeous visuals, and a compelling story about family and growing up. It’s a film that explores life in the late 70s during a tumultuous yet exciting time where things are changing with an uncertainty all in the eyes of five different yet unique individuals. In the end, 20th Century Women is a spectacular film from Mike Mills.
Mike Mills Films: (Paperboys (2001 film)) - Thumbsucker - Beginners
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